What's in a Title?


Since adopting a doctoral educational standard, there has been much controversy over how we, as physical therapists, should refer to ourselves. Over the past week, there have been several lively debates taking place during the #DPTstudent chat and on the ‘Doctor of Physical Therapy Students’ Facebook Group. In all honesty, I think the APTA’s Vision Sentence says it best…

By 2020, 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.

As the profession continued to grow and mature, additional educational standards had to be in place in order to meet our growing scope of practice. This led to the gradual progression from a certificate program to bachelor’s degree to master’s degree and finally culminating in a doctoral degree. Today’s physical therapists treat patients in a multitude of settings from orthopedic to neurological (and everything in between) utilizing evaluative skills to implement the most appropriate and safe interventions to alleviate pain and restore function. Knowing the breadth of knowledge necessary to become a successful therapist and the recent implementation of direct access, this level of education is a necessity. So, with this added educational requirement and professional responsibility comes the right to be designated a ‘Doctor’, right?

Some within the healthcare community and even some of our own colleagues don’t seem to believe we should use this distinction… Is it because it’s undeserved? After I complete a 4 year undergraduate degree and a 3 year doctoral degree, I’m not sure how it couldn’t be deserved. After the hours upon hours of studying, 12 hour days of lecture, countless written and practical examinations, over 90 weeks of clinical affiliations, and far too many student loans; using the distinction ‘Doctor’ seems appropriate to me. Using this term is an honor allowed to those who dedicate themselves to the highest level of education within their particular field. It does not matter whether it is in the field of audiology, optometry, chiropractic, podiatry, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, medicine (MD/DO), or physical therapy. Doctor is not an isolated term for physicians and it was never meant to be.

Many believe referring to ourselves as ‘Doctors of Physical Therapy’ will confuse our patients, but isn’t it our job to educate them? How many patients know that a physical therapist now needs to complete a clinical doctoral degree? How many know that they have direct access to our services? How many know that we are musculoskeletal experts? Few and far between. This needs to change. We need to change the culture around our profession and what the public perceives our profession to offer. This starts with our introduction.

“Hi, my name is John Snyder. I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy specializing in the rehabilitation of orthopedic and sports conditions. What brings you in to see me today?”

Upon graduation, this will serve as my introduction and clears up many questions and/or misconceptions my patient may have. It not only educates my patient as to my level of education, but also serves to explain my profession and area of expertise. We should not and cannot hide our education, it is a disservice to ourselves and to our patients. Our patients want piece of mind in knowing that they are being treated by a qualified healthcare practitioner, so why hide your qualifications? I am not proposing that we walk around in white lab coats, slinging our stethoscopes around our neck requesting that everyone refers to us as Dr. So-and-So. I simply think we need to advocate for our profession and this starts by educating the general public. This simple introduction gets our point across without the pomposity that could easily follow when explaining your advanced education.

All of this being said, I do not want to infer that those receiving a DPT are superior clinicians compared to those who are practicing with a BSPT or MSPT. Believe me, this is not the case. There are so many phenomenal clinicians that I either observed during my undergraduate education or worked under during my clinical rotations that are unbelievably intelligent, personable, and dedicated to their work… Only one of which had completed his DPT. I know many therapists who did not have the opportunity to pursue a DPT early in their careers have mixed emotions about the progression of our profession, but I do believe eventually the increased educational requirements will improve clinical outcomes and increase the use of evidence-informed practice. In my opinion, the purpose of the DPT was to allow our profession and subsequent education to evolve and only time will tell if this education translates into improved clinical practice.

So, do you introduce yourself as a Doctor of Physical Therapy? Why or why not?