Physical Therapy School or Medical School: Which Path is Right for You?

Physical therapy school and medical school are two excellent career options to consider when deciding on a future career. The decision to pursue physical therapy school or medical school ultimately depends on your career goals, interests, and strengths. As a current physical therapist who has spent years developing deep relationships with many physicians in several different disciplines, I will help you decide which path is best for you.

Physical therapy school trains individuals to become Doctors of Physical Therapy, whose job is to diagnose and treat physical dysfunctions. They also help patients recover from injuries or illnesses by improving their physical abilities. Physical therapists work closely with patients to develop and implement treatment plans, which can include exercises, manual therapy, and many other interventions.

Medical school, on the other hand, trains individuals to become doctors who can diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions, mainly by prescribing medications. Physicians can specialize in different areas, such as surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry. They work with patients to manage health conditions, prescribe medications, and perform procedures.

If you have a passion for helping people improve their physical abilities and enhance their daily lives, physical therapy may be the right choice for you. If you are interested in a broader range of medical conditions and procedures and want to deal with more complex medical situations, medical school may be a better fit.

Keep in mind that both paths require a significant investment of time and money, so it’s important to carefully consider your options and speak with professionals in both fields to help you make an informed decision.

Is physical therapy school the same as medical school?

No, physical therapy school is not the same as medical school. This can be confusing considering most physical therapy schools are typically a part of a larger school of medicine. While both types of programs are related to healthcare, they have different focuses and prepare students for different careers.

They share many commonalities, including classes in anatomy, physiology, and pathology. They both typically have a “didactic portion” where they are taught the basic sciences required for clinical care. As well as a “clinical portion,” where they learn the physical patient care duties of the profession.

Physical therapy school trains students to become licensed physical therapists who work with patients to diagnose musculoskeletal and neuromuscular pathologies, improve their physical function, and reduce pain. The curriculum focuses on anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and other subjects related to movement and rehabilitation. Students in physical therapy school also gain hands-on experience working with patients in clinical settings.

A therapist will learn how to identify many musculoskeletal and neurological conditions, such as a herniated disc or nerve injury. They are then taught treatment techniques, such as joint manipulations or exercises, to correct dysfunctions.

Medical school, on the other hand, trains students to become physicians who diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions. The curriculum focuses on anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, and other medical sciences. Students in medical school also gain hands-on experience working with patients in clinical settings, but they typically have a broader range of career options, such as becoming a surgeon, pediatrician, or psychiatrist.

A physician may learn how to diagnose and stabilize a stroke with prescribed medication, or order imaging to confirm a broken bone. They can then specialize further to complete surgeries or work within a specific area of the body.

Is physical therapy school or medical school harder?

It’s difficult to compare the difficulty of physical therapy school and medical school, as both programs are challenging in their own ways.

Physical therapy school requires a stronger foundation in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology, as well as a deep understanding of how to help patients recover from injuries or illnesses. Physical therapy students also need to be skilled in developing treatment plans, using various modalities to reduce pain, and working collaboratively with other healthcare professionals.

Medical school, on the other hand, requires a broader range of medical knowledge. They dive deeper into areas such as pharmacology and pathology. Medical students also need to be skilled in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of various medical conditions.

Medical students need to be prepared to handle more critical life-or-death situations, whereas physical therapists are more concerned with the long term impacts of care.

For example, a physician may prevent you from dying from a traumatic car accident. It is possible you may leave the hospital physically disabled; unable to go up a flight of stairs, return to your favorite hobbies, or care for yourself.

A physical therapist will create a plan of care to increase your daily functional capacity and get you back to independence with functional exercise.

What are the pros and cons of becoming a physical therapist vs a medical doctor?

The Pros of Becoming a Physical Therapist:

  1. Focus on Rehabilitation: Physical therapists focus on helping patients recover from injuries, surgeries, or illnesses. They work with patients to improve their physical abilities and reduce pain, which can have a significant impact on patients’ quality of life.
  2. Work-Life Balance: Physical therapists typically have more regular work hours and less stress compared to medical doctors. They often work in outpatient settings and have the option to work part-time or flexible schedules.
  3. Lower Educational Costs: Physical therapy school typically costs less than medical school, which means that students may have less student loan debt after graduation.

The Cons of Becoming a Physical Therapist:

  1. Limited Career Growth: There are fewer opportunities for career advancement in physical therapy compared to medicine. Physical therapists may need to specialize in a certain area or earn additional certifications to advance in their careers.
  2. Limited Scope of Practice: Physical therapists are trained to treat musculoskeletal conditions, which limits the scope of their practice compared to medical doctors.
  3. Lower Earning Potential: Physical therapists earn a lower salary on average compared to medical doctors.

The Pros of Becoming a Medical Doctor:

  1. Broad Scope of Practice: Medical doctors are trained to diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions, which gives them a broad scope of practice.
  2. Career Growth: Medical doctors have many opportunities for career advancement, including specializing in a certain area, pursuing research, or becoming a medical director.
  3. Higher Earning Potential: Medical doctors earn a higher salary on average compared to physical therapists.

The Cons of Becoming a Medical Doctor:

  1. High Educational Costs: Medical school is expensive, which means that students may have significant student loan debt after graduation.
  2. Long Work Hours: Medical doctors often work long hours, including nights and weekends. They may also experience high levels of stress.
  3. Lengthy Training: Becoming a medical doctor requires a lengthy and rigorous training process, including several years of medical school, residency, and fellowship.

What are the odds of getting into PT vs med school?

The odds of getting into physical therapy (PT) school or medical school can vary depending on a variety of factors, including the competitiveness of the program, the number of applicants, and the qualifications of the applicants. Here are some general statistics to give you an idea of the acceptance rates for these programs:

  • Physical Therapy School: The overall acceptance rate for PT programs in the United States was 70.64% in 2021–2022. However, the acceptance rates can vary significantly among different programs, with some programs being more competitive than others. Additionally, some programs may have higher acceptance rates for in-state applicants compared to out-of-state applicants.
  • Medical School: According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the acceptance rate for medical school applicants was 41% in the 2021–2022 application cycle. However, the acceptance rates can vary significantly among different medical schools, with some schools being more competitive than others. Additionally, the acceptance rates may vary based on the applicant’s undergraduate GPA, MCAT scores, extracurricular activities, and other factors.

It’s worth noting that acceptance rates are just one factor to consider when applying to PT or medical school. Other important factors include the quality of the program, the location, the cost, and the faculty. Additionally, meeting the minimum requirements for admission does not guarantee acceptance, as many programs receive more qualified applicants than they can accept.

Tips for increasing odds of being accepted into physical therapy or medical school.

  • Hit the baseline requirements: Given the volume of applicants every year, the first part of the acceptance process is weeding out those who did not meet the minimum. I.e., if the application requires a B or better for chemistry, do not apply with a C+ thinking you will be an exception.
  • Build connections: “It is not what you know, but who you know” is very true. When I applied to PT school, I had connections at top medical institutions such as the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins write me letters of recommendation. Having respected people in your field endorse you carries weight in this process.
  • Go above and beyond in your extracurricular activities. Showing initiative outside of undergraduate studies goes a long way. An applicant who did 100 observation hours at five different settings looks better than someone who did 500 hours at one location. Or seeing someone who volunteers at soup kitchens on their own accord shows where your heart is, something hard to convey in the application.

Remember, everyone is coming in meeting the same criteria. What can you do to stand out from the crowd?

Do physical therapists take the MCAT?

No, physical therapists do not take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a standardized test that is required for admission to medical school in the United States and Canada. Physical therapy programs typically require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

The GRE is a standardized test that measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. It is used by many graduate programs, including physical therapy programs, as part of the admissions process.

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