What Is a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy)?

An Entry Level Physical Therapy Degree

DPT stands for Doctor of Physical Therapy. That's a more advanced degree than many practicing physical therapists (PTs) have. Down the road, though, all practicing PTs will be DPTs.

This article looks at what it takes to earn a DPT, what DPTs do, where they work, and what to expect from an appointment with a DPT.

physical therapist assisting elderly man walking in parallel bars

Getty Images / aldomurillo

Earning DPT Credentials

When you see DPT after a physical therapist's name, it means they've completed the necessary training to become an entry-level physical therapist.

After getting an undergraduate degree (such as a bachelor's degree), someone getting a DPT goes through three more years of schooling. Most of the coursework focuses on movement sciences. Classes include:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Kinesiology (movement)

They may also take other basic science classes such as neurology, cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) rehabilitation, and pharmacology. They may have to complete a special research project, as well.

A major component of DPT education is 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 have clinical rotations in a:

  • PT clinic
  • Hospital
  • Nursing home
  • Cardiac rehab clinic
  • School

Once this is finished and they earn the DPT degree, they still must pass the national PT examination in their state in order to be licensed and practice as a physical therapist.

Major Components of DPT Education

To earn a DPT, students must complete:

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

What Does a DPT Do?

A doctor of physical therapy is a movement expert who can help you regain normal functional mobility after injury or illness. DPTs use a variety of techniques and treatments, including:

  • 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

DPTs 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 DPT may work in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Cardiac rehab clinics
  • Neurology-based rehab clinics
  • Spinal cord injury clinics
  • Schools
  • In patient's homes as a homecare therapist
  • Outpatient PT 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're 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 DPT

When working with a DPT, you can expect them to be 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 whether 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've had a heart attack or cardiac surgery, you may work with a DPT as part of your cardiac rehab program. They can prescribe the right amount of aerobic exercise to improve your cardiac and respiratory function.

If your child has a movement impairment, they may work with a DPT in their school. The therapist can help ensure that your child's functional movement impairment doesn't limit their ability to participate in school activities.

What if My PT Doesn't Have a DPT?

Many working physical therapists don't have a DPT, yet it's still legal for them to practice.

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 older therapists with bachelor's or master's degrees can continue practicing under their credentials.

Specialized programs now offer a transitional DPT (t-DPT) degree. The t-DPT is earned over the course of about 12 months, after which the PT can begin using DPT.

Some therapists choose not to obtain the t-DPT degree and continue to practice under their bachelor's or master's degrees. They're still qualified therapists, typically have several years of real-world PT experience, and can achieve excellent outcomes with their patients.

Summary

DPT stands for Doctor of Physical Therapy. That's the entry-level degree for people becoming physical therapists.

Getting a DPT involves three years of school beyond another degree. It requires coursework, clinical work, and passing a national exam.

DPTs work in a variety of medical settings as well as in schools and with sports teams. They're specialists in movement and can help you recover from injuries and mobility-limiting illnesses.

DPT became the required degree for new PTs in 2020. However, PTs practicing before then aren't required to become DPTs.

A Word From Verywell

If you're 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 a DPT degree.

Physical therapists with a DPT are considered clinical doctors. They 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 has a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. A PT (physical therapist) has a bachelor's or master's degree in physical therapy. Both DPTs and PTs are qualified to examine and treat 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. (Doctor of Philosophy) allows someone to become an independent scientific researcher.

    So the DPT is more treatment focused, whereas the Ph.D. is more research-focused.

  • Will a DPT write prescriptions for patients?

    DPTs can't write prescriptions for medication. They focus more on movement and exercise programs.

    However, people with a DPT degree do study pharmacology and understand how drugs affect the human body, so they may consult with you or your healthcare team about your medications.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Conard M, Schweizer K. Personality-oriented job analysis to identify non-cognitive factors predictive of performance in a doctor of physical therapy program in the United States. J Educ Eval Health Prof. 2018;15:34. doi:10.3352/jeehp.2018.15.34

  2. Rodeghero J, Wang YC, Flynn T, Cleland JA, Wainner RS, Whitman JM. The impact of physical therapy residency or fellowship education on clinical outcomes for patients with musculoskeletal conditionsJ Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2015;45(2):86-96. doi:10.2519/jospt.2015.5255

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.