Do Physical Therapists Go To Medical School?

Many people are aware that physical therapists work one on one with several different patient populations in many settings including hospitals and independent clinics. Physical therapists are unique to other medical professionals because they can treat a patient directly without needing a referral from a physician. A common question people have about physical therapists is if they had to attend medical school in order to attain the right to treat their patients.

Physical therapists do not attend medical school. Located under the school of medicine umbrella are “doctor of physical therapy” programs. These programs are technically not considered “medical school” but are still intensive medical training programs. The medical school term is reserved to those students seeking to become a “Medical Doctor” where as physical therapists are seeking to become “Doctors of Physical Therapy”.

While these programs end with different degrees, they are hosted by the same school, have overlapping curriculum, as well as follow a similar format. Both have a period of time, usually two years, with a strong emphasis on basic sciences (gross and microscopic anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, behavioral science, and neuroscience). Then the curriculum shifts to abnormalities of the body’s structure, function, and disease. Both have a strong emphasis on analyzing scientific literature, examination and interviewing as well.

Here are the differences however,

Medical school- Puts more emphasis on general therapeutic principles through courses in microbiology, immunology, pharmacology, and pathology. The goal is to teach the future M.D. how to successfully identify the appropriate testing procedures, diagnose disease, and treat the patient through the traditional medicine model (pharmaceuticals and surgery).

Physical Therapy School- Puts the majority of its emphasis on how to increase function and participation after the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems are affected by disease and injury. The courses focus on how to use evidence based therapeutic exercise, manual therapies, and neuromuscular re-education to treat their patients after diagnoses.

Is a physical therapist a real doctor?

Yes, a physical therapists is a real doctor. This conversation can become muddied by semantics depending on who you ask. The word has many definitions the one commonly associated in this context is as follows:

a person skilled or specializing in healing arts especially one (such as a physician, dentist, or veterinarian) who holds an advanced degree and is licensed to practice

Physical therapists by definition hold an advanced degree and are nationally licensed to practice physical therapy. This includes, but not limited to diagnosing, treating, and educating patients with disease or injury.

Can physical therapists diagnose?

Yes, a physical therapists can diagnose a patient. Physical therapists diagnose movement disorders or injuries related to movement. This is different than a medical diagnoses which is why there are different diagnoses codes for M.D.’s and DPT’s. Here is an example of the same patient with a diagnoses from a M.D. and a DPT.

M.D.– Right sided foot pain

DPT- Test and measures consistent with a grade 3 sprain of the Right talofibular ligament resulting in antalgic gait, decrease range of motion, strength, and proprioception.

Notice the increased specificity of the diagnoses as it relates the the musculoskeletal system and the movement disorder from the DPT vs the M.D.

This does not mean M.D.’s are less of a practitioner. The patient needs both professions, they both just serve a different purpose. The M.D. would be responsible for ordering medications, referring to surgery, an ordering complex imaging. The DPT would be responsible for decreasing pain and disability as well as increasing function (range of motion, strength, etc) with exercise.

Is Physical Therapy Considered Medicine?

As a general rule, yes physical therapy is considered medicine. Traditionally M.D.’s are seen as the “medicine” practitioner’s. On the other hand when you break down what it means to practice medicine a physical therapist legally falls under the field of medicine.

To practice medicine

In general, a person practices medicine when he or she tries to diagnose or cure an illness or injury, prescribes drugs, performs surgery, or claims he or she is a doctor.

What is the Unauthorized Practice of Medicine? – FindLaw

A physical therapist is a doctor who is diagnosing and treating both illness and injury. With that in mind a therapist can be sued for practicing medicine without a license if the are treating someone for a disease or injury without being licensed in their state.

Given the legal definition and the legal issues that follow this definition yes technically a physical therapist is considered medicine. The nuance is in the scope of practice. Therapists do not share the same scope as a M.D. therefore cannot treat the same way. There are hundreds of medical procedures and protocols that a therapist could never participate in due their scope of practice.

Do physical therapist get a white coat?

Yes, physical therapists are award white coats during their progression of schooling. However, they rarely is ever use the white coats in practice. This is for several valid reasons.

  1. Not to be confused with M.D.’s in the hospital
  2. Unsanitary when making close physical contact with multiple patients in a day.
  3. Impractical for the physical tasks that must be performed daily for therapists.

Recent Posts