The term doctor originated in the early 14th century from the Latin word meaning “teacher.” It referred to a group of theologians that had approval from the Roman Catholic Church to speak on religious matters and doctrines. Initially, the title was not associated with academics or health professionals. By the end of the 14th century, during the Renaissance, the term “doctor” was being applied to academics and medical practitioners. (3)
The name “Doctor” is given to anybody who has received a doctoral level degree from a university. This includes, but is not limited to:
The use of the title “doctor” for non-physician health professionals has been heavily debated. One should not use the title “doctor” if they are to be mistaken with a physician. This is especially important in hospital settings— if one is to use the title “doctor,” they should specify what type of doctor they are. This will provide transparency and eliminate patient confusion, ensuring patients know which professional they are speaking with.
Doctors of Physical Therapy (DPTs) are movement specialists who focus on a non-pharmaceutical approach to reducing pain, optimizing kinesthetic function, and reduce the risk of falling. DPTs may work in outpatient settings, in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, home health, and other venues. Specialties in the field include orthopedics, sports, neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, woman’s health, cardiopulmonary, oncology, and electrophysiology. Treatment interventions include therapeutic exercise, therapeutic activities, neuromuscular re-education, gait training, joint mobilizations, joint manipulations, soft tissue mobilizations, dry needling, blood flow restriction training, vestibular rehabilitation therapy, as well as others.
Bachelors and masters of physical therapy paved the way to allow for an advancement to a doctoral program. Physical therapy (also known as Physiotherapy) has been a doctorate level education since 1992, and as of 2017, there are 222 Doctorate of Physical Therapy programs in the United States. After completion of their doctorate, physical therapists must pass a state licensure and national board examination to clinically practice. DPTs may specialize in the profession through a residency or fellowship. There are 178 credentialed residency programs and 34 credentialed fellowship programs in the USA. (1) Physical therapy graduates appropriately use the title “doctor” as they fulfill all the requisites of a Physical Therapy Doctoral program.
To earn the appellation “Doctor of Physical Therapy,” one must complete four years for a bachelor’s degree, three to four years of a doctorate, with an optional one to two year residency, and/or an optional one to two year fellowship.
The American Physical Therapy Association’s statement on the use of the designation “doctor” states:
"The American Physical Therapy Association supports the use of the title of 'Doctor of Physical Therapy' only for those physical therapists who have graduated from a DPT program. In order to provide accurate information to consumers, physical therapists who have earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree (DPT) and those who have earned other doctoral degrees and use the title 'Doctor' in practice settings shall indicate they are physical therapists. Use of the title shall be in accordance with jurisdictional law." (4)
In other words, DPTs may use the title “doctor” and must indicate that they are a physical therapist. This gives clarity to patients as to which specialty their doctor practices. In hospital settings, however, it is more likely that patients may confuse a physical therapist with a physician. Therefore, non-physician’s use of the title is discouraged in hospitals.
With the exception of DPTs who attend to military personnel, DPTs do not prescribe medications; however, they do prescribe therapeutic exercises, medical equipment, and adaptive equipment. Furthermore, all states in the USA have direct access, allowing a patient to seek treatment from a physical therapist without referral from a physician. It’s especially important to visit a physical therapist if one has any pain, injury, and/or is at risk of falling. This statement is an abrupt departure from advocacy to advisory.
The rigorous training completed by Doctors of Physical Therapy should be comforting to patients. Through the use of thorough evaluations, DPTs are well versed to diagnose and properly treat patient’s ailments.
Misinterpretation for patients is discernible in the absence of specificity of healthcare doctors. It behooves the medical professions and society to refer to medical doctors as “physicians,” or by their specialty; internist, cardiologist, pulmonologist, endocrinologist, etcetera. This will break the cycle of patients thinking all doctors are physicians, because as shown above, there is a diverse number of doctoral professionals.
Author: Dr. Osama Imam PT, DPT, Cert. DN
1. “Accredited Schools Directory”. Aptaapps.apta.org.
2. Sears, B. (2020, June 29). Gait Training Exercises In Physical Therapy. In Very Well Health. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/gait-training-in-physical-therapy-5069884
3. The History of 'Doctor' (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-history-of-doctor
4. Transition DPT FAQs (2019, December 1). In American Physical Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://www.apta.org/your-career/career-advancement/postprofessional-degree/transition-dpt-faqs#:~:text=APTA%20has%20a%20position%2C%20Use,graduated%20from%20a%20DPT%20program.