"Physical therapy is not a subspecialty of the medical profession and physical therapists are not medical doctors; we are a separate profession that provides a unique service that physicians are unable and untrained to provide."

Letter to the AMA from the APTA, Dec 2009

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Do doctors of physical therapy need to call themselves 'Doctor'?

I wonder how the rest of the profession should view my physical therapist colleague who, having earned her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a prestigious university, won't call herself doctor.

Not only will she not call herself doctor in the clinic, she asks people who DO call her doctor NOT to do so again.

I feel disappointed in her, not just because of her behavior, but for the reason she gives people, such as the front desk clerks in the physical therapy clinic, the equipment vendors and the patients when they initially call her doctor.
"I'm not a medical doctor, like some of the physicians I work with, and I don't feel confident that my expertise compares to their expertise - even though we each claim separate bodies of knowledge."
She is still young - only about four years out of her DPT degree. She works in a setting where she is in close contact with physicians - a physician-owned physical therapy clinic.

This physician-owned practice claims they provide collaborative care.  They emphasize the close communication among the physicians and the physical therapists.  From my colleague's behavior however, I suspect her workplace has impaired the development of her professional autonomy.  The American Physical Therapy Association's Vision 2020 Statement states:
Physical Therapy will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy, recognized by consumers and other health care professionals as the practitioners of choice to whom consumers have direct access for the diagnosis of, interventions for, and prevention of impairments, activity limitations, participation restrictions, and environmental barriers related to movement, function, and health.
Do doctors of physical therapy need to call themselves Doctor? 

I believe physical therapists should call themselves doctor if they have earned the right.  Please note, I have not earned the right to call myself Doctor.  Many other physical therapists have learned the specialized knowledge and skills to achieve great results without earning the DPT credential.  However, according to Randall Collins' 1979 book The Credentialed Society:
"In a credential society, such certifications may become more important than actual skills or abilities.  
In some cases, employers may require formal credentials, such as an advanced academic degree, for a job that can be done perfectly well by applying skills acquired through experience or informal study.  
This type of credentialism is common in white-collar jobs, which require workers to have difficult-to-measure skills such as critical thinking.  
Rather than measure or evaluate those skills directly, employers assume that anyone able to earn a credential must possess those skills."
'Skilled physical therapy' is a phrase that can provoke endless discussions among bloggers and commenters. There is a link between greater education and better results for patients.  More importantly, the DPT credential is, I think, an important step in the social legitimization of the physical therapist skill set. Physical therapists need to use the term Doctor to fully capture their investment in the time and money, not to mention for the benefit of the physical therapy profession as a whole.

Physical therapists do have one of those hard-to-measure skill set noted by Collins. So do physicians.  In hospitals, the physician credential is NOT optional.  The culture of medicine does not allow physicians to communicate with patients using their first names.

What go me thinking about my DPT colleague is an article called The Power of Professionalism in the September 2013 PT in Motion magazine (featured at APTA.org) whose print version arrived a couple weeks ago.  In the article, new graduate DPT Jean Miles says...
"What professionalism boils down to for me is being the strongest advocate for your patient that you possibly can be... Not that you have to be a DPT to be a strong patient advocate but I personally gained so much confidence..."
American society will need doctor-level professionals to manage the burgeoning rolls of newly-insured patients who have just become eligible for health insurance coverage on October 1st, 2013 under ObamaCare.

America's 800,000 physicians will face an increase in demand for their services - that, in some cases, they may be unable to deliver.

I first wrote about this in  Can Physical Therapists Replace Physicians as Primary Care Providers in Hospitals? in a November 2011 blogpost on PhysicalTherapyDiagnosis.com.  This post got a good response and a lot of traffic.

Every day, I read about non-physician providers stepping up to fill the demand in America for appropriate, high-quality services the patients need.  Cost and risk are both considered when society shifts tasks away from what physicians have traditionally done.  This article describes Physician Assistants providing basic care to rural and underserved communities.

Physical therapists can fill those roles for patients with chronic pain, sports injuries and other, low-risk conditions.  But first, society needs to understand and accept that the profession of physical therapists is a doctoring profession.  We should call ourselves 'Doctor'.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) maintains a professionalism webpage which contains the core documents defining and describing professionalism in physical therapy.

I wonder if commenters to this blog can help me? 

What can I say to my colleague to encourage her to call herself Doctor?  How can I help her gain confidence so her patients and the physicians she works with can call her Doctor, too?

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Tim Richardson, PT owns a private practice at Medical Arts Rehabilitation, Inc in Palmetto, Florida. The clinic website is at MedicalArtsRehab.com.

Bulletproof Expert Systems: Clinical Decision Support for Physical Therapists in the Outpatient Setting is a manager's workbook with stories, checklists, charts, graphs, tables, and templates describing how you can use paper-based or computerized tools to improve your clinic's Medicare compliance, process adherence and patient outcomes.

Tim has implemented a computerized Clinical Decision Support (CDS) system in his clinic since 2006 that serves as a Reminder, Alerting, Prompting and Predicting CDS using evidence-based tests and measures.

Tim can be reached at
TimRichPT@BulletproofPT.com .

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Consistent with the American Physical Therapy Association Vision Statement for Physical Therapy 2020, the American Physical Therapy Association supports exclusive physical therapist ownership and operation of physical therapy services.