In 2000, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) set forth a vision statement that by 2020, every practicing physical therapist would be trained at the doctoral level, earning a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT). This level of education is essential, according to the APTA, given the growing body of knowledge in physical therapy and the needs of an aging America.
"The APTA's goal is to prepare an autonomous but collaborative practitioner who can work in a variety of settings," explains Dr. Robert Sandstrom, PT, PhD, associate professor and chair of the physical therapy department at Creighton University in Omaha. "Today, physical therapists can see patients of all ages, from newborns to the oldest individuals in long-term care. It takes time to prepare a therapist for this responsibility."
In a remarkably rapid manner, the APTA's vision is becoming a reality.
In 1995, Creighton ran the only DPT program in the US. Today, there are 117 programs, most of which have been formed since 1999. Of the 204 US physical therapy programs, more than half are accredited to enroll doctoral students.
More to Learn
Why the need for extra schooling? For starters, there's a lot to learn. "The amount of information in healthcare is growing exponentially," says Mary Jane Harris, PT, director of the APTA's Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. "There is just more information physical therapists need to effectively function in a healthcare delivery system."
A bachelor's-level education didn't allow enough time for students to get both a good liberal arts education and the necessary grounding in physical therapy, she says. PTs now entering the profession must graduate from accredited programs, which now include only master's- and doctorate-level programs. But many now believe that master's-level programs simply aren't enough for the challenges this profession presents.
Physical therapists also need expanded training in business-management skills as more enter private practice.
Other factors affect the length of schooling, too. "We are facing a tremendous challenge of disablement in our society with the aging population in the US," Sandstrom explains. "We're confronted by a population which is increasingly suffering from chronic disease and disability and yet has high expectations for how they want to live. How are we going to keep this population healthy?"
The APTA's answer: A doctoral-level education.
Off Campus, On the Job
There are two paths to the DPT degree. Students embarking on their physical therapy education can enroll in an entry-level DPT program that will culminate in a doctoral degree. Sandstrom predicts that by 2015, nearly 95 percent of all physical therapy programs will be entry-level DPT programs.
For accredited practitioners already in the workforce, transitional, or post-professional, DPT degrees offer a convenient way to earn a doctorate while remaining employed. Most transitional programs follow a distance-learning model, with only brief on-campus experiences. Plus, they build on and recognize the skills and knowledge practitioners have acquired while working.
For example, Creighton's distance-based transitional DPT program runs two to three years but includes just one brief on-campus experience.
At Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, Utah, the transitional DPT program runs eight months with only two week-long stints on campus. Doctoral students in the program gain skills they can immediately use in their clinical practice.
The Rocky Mountain curriculum stresses evidence-based practice -- integrating the best research evidence with clinical experience and patient values, according to transitional DPT program director Gail Dean Deyle, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT. "Our graduates are very pleased with their new abilities to find and apply the best available evidence for diagnosis and intervention in their practice," he says.
Earning a DPT won't necessarily translate into a higher income, according to available PT salary data, but it does demonstrate a commitment to the profession and can help practitioners treat people more effectively.
Financial assistance is available for PT education.