When it comes to opening doors and opening eyes, specialty certification lets employers, colleagues and patients know that a physical therapist (PT) possesses advanced clinical skills in a particular area. Board-certified therapists truly stand out from their peers, considering fewer than 10 percent of the roughly 66,000 members of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) have obtained this voluntary advanced credential. And this exclusive group of therapists can reap a variety of benefits: increased prestige, patient referrals, job opportunities, peer recognition and higher pay.
The Go-to Person
After physical therapist Gail Dean Deyle, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, became an orthopedic-certified specialist in 1991, peers viewed him as a mentor, colleagues sought his advice and he was invited to participate in continuing-education programs.
"People could clearly understand where my expertise and interest lay," says Deyle, who is graduate program director for the transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, Utah. Recently retired from the US Army, Deyle also founded the US Army-Baylor University doctoral program in orthopedic physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Following her certification four years ago as an orthopedic specialist, Sharon Feldman, PT, OCS, found that she, too, became an unofficial resource for therapist peers and medical colleagues at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), where she serves as clinical manager of the Arthritis Center.
Under a new clinical ladder program, the RIC now rewards and encourages board certification with opportunities for advancement and higher salary growth.
A study published in 2002 by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) of the APTA shows that board-certified PTs reported a higher average income than noncertified peers, says Andrea Blake, director of the board's specialty certification department. Studies have also found that physicians and employers believe that certified specialists achieve more effective clinical outcomes and often manage patients with more complex conditions.
Seven Ways to Shine
Currently, the ABPTS offers seven specialty certification areas:
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary (CCS).
- Clinical electrophysiology (ECS).
- Geriatric (GCS).
- Neurology (NCS).
- Orthopaedic (OCS).
- Pediatric (PCS).
- Sports (SCS).
Open to licensed PTs in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, certification requires a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical experience in the specialty area and successful completion of a written exam. To maintain certification, candidates must hold a current license, log a minimum number of patient-care hours in the specialty and complete a competency assessment every 10 years.
As of 2009, more than 9,400 PTs had become board-certified as clinical specialists. More than half of those are in orthopedics, reflecting the number of therapy patients with orthopedic conditions.
Standing Out for Employers
As awareness of specialty certifications grows, employers are realizing certification can help with hiring, staff development, patient care and obtaining referrals.
"Certification is a good indicator that a job candidate has a certain skill level," says Feldman, who handles hiring for her department. "A candidate's ‘years of experience' [don't] necessarily translate into clinical skills."
Certification is also a good time-management tool when screening applicants, she says. "When a candidate has specialty certification, I have greater assurance that I'm getting what I'm asking for," she says.
Deyle, who reports seeing an increased demand for specialty-certified PTs, cites another benefit. "Employers are looking for people who are motivated enough to go through this process," he says.
In addition, Feldman says that referral sources are starting to request clinical specialists when referring patients to the RIC. For patients, employers and colleagues in need of a specialist, the ABPTS's online directory of certified specialists serves as a convenient referral system.
The recognition and career boost that come from achieving a specialty certification are certainly welcome, but Feldman most appreciates what she learned while preparing for the exam in a weekly study group with four colleagues.
"My 15 years of experience gave me the context to better understand the material, and the different perspectives of my study group members helped me look at things differently," she says. "The best thing I got out of it was the year of studying."