Last week I was speaking with a medical doctor from Michigan who plainly stated, "I do not see why physical therapists need a doctorate degree to exercise people." It was in this moment that I could have ruined that relationship OR made it stronger. Trust me, I thought about answering it in a demeaning manner, but I didn't. I respectfully gave her an answer that changed her understanding of our profession. If you have been a physical therapist or PT student for any appreciable amount of time, you have likely encountered this question: "Why do Physical Therapists need a doctorate degree?" Answering this question can be frustrating, especially when it is being asked by a referral source. However, knowing the answer to this question is important & how you answer it can change people's viewpoint of what physical therapist's do.
To answer my question above, I educated the doctor that we need our doctorate degree to ensure that the patient is appropriate for exercise. I need to make sure that my patient's shoulder pain is truly musculoskeletal pain and not cardiogenic pain. I then went on to explain that physical therapists do more than exercise. We specialize in regional interdependence, joint dysfunctions, neuromuscular disorders, and pain science. Additionally, our doctorate degree allows us to have direct access. In many states, physical therapists can now see a patient without needing a physician's referral. Several studies have shown that direct access can lower costs, expedite care, and decrease usage. A 2015 PT study out of San Antonio, Texas found that individuals immediately seen by physical therapists had lower costs and underwent fewer tests than those with a delayed referral to PT. Research is emerging on the benefits of direct access for physical therapy.
When someone asks why Physical Therapists need a doctorate degree, view it as a learning opportunity. People do not understand what physical therapists do. Having a concise answer to this question is important. Teach them!
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