DPT vs. PT: Recent Changes in This Profession

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 22, 2021

Doctors of physical therapy (DPT) help patients improve their mobility, resume their favorite activities and recover their overall health. The process of becoming a DPT can be lengthy, but their work is often lucrative and directly improves the lives of others. If you want to help people recover from injuries and improve their health, a career as a DPT may be the right choice for you. In this article, we discuss DPT and physical therapist (PT) career paths, how each has changed in recent years, and the steps required to become a physical therapist.

Recent changes in DPT and PT career paths

The career paths of DPTs and PTs were slightly different before 2020. In previous years, all physical therapists attained a four-year degree in pre-medicine, nursing, physical therapy or a similar field. They would then often pursue a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or a Master of Science in physical therapy (MSPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These professionals didn't require a DPT degree to work as a physical therapist, but it often increased their employment options.

As of 2020, physical therapy positions require applicants to attain a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. The vast majority of current physical therapists with a master's degree can still practice, but they must participate in transitional programs to attain their DPT degree. As a result of these changes, the titles DPT and PT are interchangeable to describe a physical therapist.

What is a DPT?

A DPT is a medical professional who helps patients with muscle, nervous system or skeletal issues. Physical therapists work with patients of all ages to help them recover from injuries, handle long-term medical conditions and manage chronic pain. These professionals also develop unique recovery plans for each patient that may include certain exercises that can help them recover from their specific injury.

Read more: Learn About Being a Physical Therapist

Job responsibilities of a DPT

An effective DPT commonly performs the following duties:

  • Thoroughly reviewing patients' medical histories

  • Conferring with nurses, doctors and other medical professionals regarding patient care

  • Conducting tests to determine the severity and scope of injuries

  • Diagnosing movement dysfunction in patients

  • Developing patient treatment plans that include movements and exercises to help patients recover

  • Teaching patients how to perform physical therapy exercises at home

  • Maintaining records of patient progress

  • Overseeing physical therapy assistants and technicians

  • Performing massages or providing electrical stimulation to quicken healing

  • Assisting patients with assistive equipment such as walkers or wheelchairs

How to become a DPT

Here are some steps you can follow to pursue a career as a DPT:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

The first step toward becoming a DPT is to complete a bachelor's degree in nursing, pre-med, physical therapy or another health-related field. Undergraduate programs often include courses in kinesiology, biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology. Consider shortening the time required to become a DPT by attending a university that offers a combined bachelor's and DPT program, which often comprises three years of undergraduate work and three years of professional DPT study.

2. Earn a DPT degree

The next step toward becoming a DPT is often completing a three-year DPT program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). The first year of most DPT programs includes courses in anatomy, biomechanics, imaging and pathophysiology. The second year of a DPT typically includes lab work, clinical education and advanced coursework in neuromuscular systems, and third-year DPT students often gain hands-on experience working under a clinical instructor.

3. Pass the NPTE

Becoming a DPT also requires passing the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). This exam covers systems of the body, including musculoskeletal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular, and different content areas, such as evaluation, examination and intervention.

4. Get licensed

Licensing requirements for physical therapists differ by state, but many states require DPTs to pass the NPTE, as well as background checks and compliance training. It may be beneficial to contact your state licensing board to learn about your specific licensing requirements. Once licensed, all DPTs can maintain their license by completing continuing education courses.

5. Complete a residency program

A one-year clinical residency program provides additional coursework, training and hands-on experience for aspiring DPTs. Although not required to work as a DPT, a residency program is a great way to begin working in a specialty area if you so choose.

6. Become board-certified

To become board-certified in a specialty area, a DPT works directly with patients in their specialty area or completes a residency in their specialty before passing a competency test. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certification for most DPTs. The most common DPT specialty areas are:

  • Orthopedic clinical specialist (OCS): DTPs who specialize in orthopedics help patients with injuries and conditions affecting the bones, muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments. They may work with patients recovering from surgery or those with chronic diseases such as arthritis.

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist (CCS): A CCS physical therapist helps patients with heart and lung conditions such as cystic fibrosis, heart attack or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  • Geriatric clinical specialist (GCS): DPTs specializing in geriatrics work with elderly patients suffering from arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, among other diseases.

  • Sports clinical specialist (SCS): An SCS physical therapist works with athletes of all levels. Sports DPTs help athletes recover from injuries, reduce pain and avoid future injuries.

Read more: 9 Physical Therapist Certifications for Specialization

Skills needed to become a DPT

Successful DPTs often possess the following skills:

  • Communication skills: Actively listening to patients' needs is an important skill for any DPT, as they often explain therapy plans and proper movement techniques to patients.

  • Interpersonal skills: Empathy and compassion can help you connect with patients who may be experiencing painful recoveries.

  • Leadership skills: Many physical therapists lead a team of technicians or assistants, and developed leadership skills can result in a productive work environment.

  • Attention to detail: Observational skills and attention to detail are important when diagnosing movement issues and creating treatment plans.

  • Physical stamina: DPTs spend most of their workdays standing while assisting patients. DPTs may also help patients in and out of specialized therapeutic equipment.

  • Time management skills: Effective physical therapists maintain an orderly schedule by completing each patient's therapy session in a timely fashion.

Read more: Physical Therapist Skills: Definition and Examples

Where do DPTs commonly work?

As a physical therapist, you might work in a wide variety of professional settings. For example, you can work with individual patients or as part of a multi-person care team. The most common work environments or employers for DPTs include:

  • Private clinics

  • Home healthcare settings

  • Hospitals

  • Nursing care facilities

  • Schools

  • Sports teams

  • Residential schools

Although most DPTs work in an office or clinical setting, in-home physical therapists may travel to work with patients.

Read more: Physical Therapist Work Environments

FAQs about DPTs

Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions about DPTs:

Is a DPT degree the same as a Ph.D.?

A DPT degree is not the same as a Ph.D., as a Ph.D. candidate focuses more on research and publishing their work. A DPT degree typically requires students to demonstrate competency in specific clinical areas to work as an independent physical therapist.

Is a DPT a doctor?

Although completion of a DPT program earns candidates a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, it's rare for DPTs to refer to themselves as doctors. Medical doctors often complete a four-year undergraduate program, four-year medical school program and three years of residency.

What is the average salary for a DPT?

The average salary for a physical therapist is $81,991 per year. Your exact salary often depends on your years of experience, specialty area and geographic location of your employer.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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