What Is the Difference Between a Physiatrist and Physical Therapist?

What Is the Difference Between a Physiatrist and Physical Therapist?

Both medical professionals, physiatrists, and physical therapists often treat the same patient population, leading many people to assume that specialists are one and the same. However, each serves a different function in patient care, making their disciplines related but not identical.

At Santa Cruz Osteopathic, physiatrist and physical medicine specialist Dr. Richard Bernstein diagnoses and treats all manner of joint and muscle pain holistically, with the patient’s overall health taken into account within the treatment plan. Because many believe physiatrists and physical therapists are the same, the doctor is taking this opportunity to clarify what each specialist does.

What is a physiatrist?

Physiatrists and physical therapists both treat patients with the same types of conditions. However, physiatrists must complete medical school and perform four years of residency training before becoming certified medical specialists. This allows them to apply a broad knowledge of medicine, including biomechanics, anatomy, and musculoskeletal and neurological disorders, to patient care.

The physiatrist’s goal is to combine physical therapy, medication management, and pain management procedures to maximize a patient’s physical functioning, decrease or eliminate pain, and improve their quality of life. They work closely with other types of specialists, including physical therapists, to best serve the patient’s needs.

A physiatrist assesses the patient and ensures they’re medically stable to participate in therapies. That means they address any rehabilitation-related issues, including pain management, gait and movement disorders, spasticity management, energy conservation, and disease education. In addition, the physiatrist manages the patient’s comorbid conditions (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, CAD, COPD, etc.) to prevent medical complications.

What physiatrists don’t do is perform the therapies they prescribe. That role falls to the physical therapists (PTs). To practice as a physical therapist in the US, you study three years post-university to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited program, as well as pass a state licensure exam.

As part of their training, PTs study clinical features of common musculoskeletal anatomy, examination, and pathology; learn to develop an individualized treatment plan and exercise regimen; and perform the physical modalities needed (including heat, cold, stretching, TENS).

The physiatrist and the PT communicate with each other to maximize patient care and ensure that what the physiatrist prescribes is what the PT focuses on in treatment sessions.

Areas of specialty

While most physical therapists are more generalists by trade, physiatrists often specialize in particular disorders and diseases.

Areas of focus include:

Despite specialization, because physiatrists are trained comprehensively on a broad spectrum of conditions, they’re uniquely positioned to adapt to and design new technologies and shift with new approaches in health care.

New definitions

In 2017, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation announced a new mission statement containing three themes that better define and represent the role of physiatry and its practitioners in the future of medicine.

First, “Physiatrists are the essential medical experts in value-based evaluation, diagnosis, and management of neuromusculoskeletal and disabling conditions.”

Second, “Physiatrists are indispensable leaders in directing rehabilitation and recovery, and in preventing injury and disease.”

Third, “Physiatrists are vital in optimizing outcomes and function early and throughout the continuum of patient care.”

If you’ve been struggling with a musculoskeletal issue and need an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment, your next stop should be Santa Cruz Osteopathic for a comprehensive, holistic evaluation, which may include physical therapy.

To learn more or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Bernstein, call us at 831-464-1605 or book online today.

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