What Is a DPT in Physical Therapy? An Overview

The Entry Level PT Degree

Visit any healthcare practitioner, and you'll likely meet someone with several letters after their name. These letters signify a degree obtained or a specialist certification earned. Physical therapists (PTs) are no different. Many PTs have several letters after their name. The letters "DPT" are often found after a therapist's name.

So what do the letters DPT signify, and what does it mean when you see a DPT?

physical therapist assisting elderly man walking in parallel bars

Getty Images / aldomurillo

DPT Credential in Physical Therapy

The DPT credential stands for "Doctor of Physical Therapy." This signifies that the therapist has completed the necessary training to become an entry-level physical therapist. The DPT degree is a clinical doctorate and should not be confused with other doctorate level degrees, such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D. degree.

The typical length of schooling for a DPT degree is three years post-graduate (three years of school after completion of a related undergraduate degree that fulfills the necessary prerequisites). Most of the coursework centers around movement sciences. Classes such as anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology are included in the DPT curriculum. Other basic science classes such as neurology, cardiopulmonary rehab, and pharmacology may be included as well.

Physical therapy-specific coursework is a part of the DPT degree. Classes such as ethics and professionalism may be taken, and a special research project may be complete by the student to earn the DPT degree.

One major component of DPT education is the clinical rotations. During PT school, the student spends time in physical therapy clinics or hospitals, working closely with licensed therapists to learn the basics and hone their rehab skills. The student may work in an outpatient clinic, hospital, nursing home, cardiac rehab clinic, or school as part of their clinical rotations.

Upon completion of the required coursework and clinical rotations, the student will be awarded the degree of DPT. They still must pass the national PT examination in their state in order to be licensed and to practice as a physical therapist.

Major Components of DPT Education

To earn a DPT, students must complete:

  • Selection of clinical coursework
  • Clinical rotations to practice hands-on work
  • National PT examination

What Does a Doctor of Physical Therapy Do?

A doctor of physical therapy is a movement expert who helps people regain normal functional mobility after injury or illness. Therapists use a variety of techniques and treatments to help their patients recover.

Treatments often used by a DPT may include:

  • Therapeutic exercise prescription
  • Wheelchair modifications
  • Joint mobilization
  • Functional mobility training
  • Application of therapeutic modalities such as ultrasound or electrical stimulation
  • Exercise prescription for improved cardiac and pulmonary function

Physical therapists also use their expertise to help prevent disability or movement problems. So, if you have any problems with mobility, working with a DPT may be a good idea.

Where Does a DPT Work?

A doctor of physical therapy may work in a variety of settings. These may include:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Cardiac rehab clinics
  • Neurology based rehab clinics
  • Spinal cord injury clinics
  • Schools
  • In patient's homes as a homecare therapist
  • Outpatient clinics
  • With sports teams

Physical therapists work with people of all ages, from birth through the later adult years. If you have a problem with normal functional movement, someone with a DPT degree is a good choice to see to help you regain normal mobility. If you are hospitalized, a professional with a DPT may come to your room to help you regain normal functional mobility so you can return home safely.

What to Expect From a Doctor Of Physical Therapy

When working with a doctor of physical therapy, you can expect to encounter a movement expert who has a vast knowledge of the body's systems. Your therapist is trained to recognize movement impairments and manage pain. They can determine if your condition is severe and requires some other treatment besides physical therapy. And they can implement strategies to help you regain normal, pain-free functional mobility.

If you have had a heart attack or cardiac surgery, you may work with a DPT as part of your comprehensive cardiac rehab program. They can prescribe the right amount of aerobic exercise to improve your cardiac and respiratory function so you can return to your previous level of function.

If your child has a movement impairment, they may work with a DPT in their school. The therapist may work with your child to ensure that their functional movement impairment does not limit their full participation in school activities.

DPTs Can Help Restore Quality of Life

Physical therapists can be motivators as well, and they may have a profound effect on your life. Imagine if you are injured and are unable to walk. Then, imagine working daily with a physical therapist in the hospital to regain basic mobility. Once you leave the hospital, you may work with a DPT to progressively gain strength and mobility until you have regained your normal mobility. Working with someone with a DPT can help you move to the best of your ability.

What if My PT Doesn't Have a DPT?

But wait! Your physical therapist may not have a DPT and can still be practicing. How can that be?

In the early 2000s, the American Physical Therapy Association set out to have the DPT be the entry-level degree for all PTs by the year 2020. But they allow older therapists with bachelor's or master's degrees to continue practicing under their credentials. There are specialized programs offering a transitional DPT degree. This t-DPT degree is done over the course of about 12 months and then allows the therapist to use the letters "DPT" after their name.

Some therapists (like myself) choose not to obtain the t-DPT degree and continue to practice under their bachelor's or master's degree. That's fine; they are still qualified therapists, typically have several years of real-world PT experience, and they can achieve excellent outcomes with their patients.

A Word From Verywell

If you are injured or ill and are having trouble moving normally, or if pain limits your ability to complete your day-to-day tasks, you may benefit from working with someone with a DPT degree. Physical therapists with a DPT are considered clinical doctors and can assess your condition and offer treatments that can help you quickly and safely recover.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a DPT and a PT?

    A DPT and a PT are the same thing. People with the DPT designation have earned the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, while a PT may have a bachelor's or master's degree. Both are qualified to examine and treat people with movement difficulties.

  • What is the difference between a DPT and Ph.D.?

    A DPT is a clinical doctorate and is the current entry-level degree for physical therapists practicing in the United States. A Ph.D. is a degree that allows the professional to become an independent scientific investigator. So the DPT is more clinically focused, whereas the Ph.D. is more research-focused.

  • Will a DPT write prescriptions for patients?

    Your DPT will not write a prescription for medication. The main prescription that a DPT will write is a movement and exercise program. People with the DPT degree do study pharmacology and have an understanding of the different types of medicines and how they affect the human body.

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3 Sources
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