While the specifics of state licensure vary, every registered physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist is required to hold an advanced degree in order to be eligible for licensure. Obviously, this is no shock to you, but you may be surprised to learn that of 211 accredited physical therapy education programs, only 13 are at the master’s level (MPT, MSPT, MS), while 198 are doctoral (DPT).  As a result, more and more physical therapists are entering the workforce with their doctorates, and employers hiring physical therapists increasingly expect them to be Doctors of Physical Therapy.
The shift toward the DPT degree is no coincidence. Nine years ago, the American Physical Therapy Association adopted “Vision 2020,” a series of goals for the profession to achieve by the year 2020. One of the goals is “by 2020, physical therapy will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy.” By encouraging physical therapists to pursue doctoral-level studies, APTA hopes physical therapists will eventually be recognized as “practitioners of choice” to whom consumers have “direct access” for diagnosis and care .
These are considerable goals and they won’t happen overnight, but at least two of the objectives are already showing dramatic progress. The significant shift to the doctorate over the master’s degree certainly reflects the efforts of APTA and Vision 2020. Likewise, a legislative push incited by Vision 2020 currently has 44 states offering direct access to physical therapists without a referral from a physician.  The movement will hopefully result in physical therapists’ gaining the same privileges of other medical professionals in autonomous practice, but how are physical therapists without their DPTs feeling about the directive?
Fortunately, it’s not exactly a mandate. While it is APTA’s vision that all physical therapists will be doctors of physical therapy by the year 2020, there has been no indication that a doctorate will be mandatory to remain in practice. According to APTA’s former Sr. Vice President of Education, Dr. Joe Black, “Your right to practice is assured by licensure.” However, he warns, “the critical mass of DPTs will be significant; therefore, the PT without the degree will be in a relatively small group. What affect will that have on compensation, job opportunities, and one’s role and responsibilities is simply impossible to determine.” 
One way physical therapists in current practice can avoid being left behind is by participating in a transition DPT (t-DPT) program. According to the APTA website, the transition DPT program “allows the US licensed physical therapist to obtain the clinical doctorate by demonstrating knowledge commensurate with that of current professional (entry-level) DPT outcomes.” The transitional program also takes into account a therapist’s knowledge and experience.  While the programs vary in coursework and in length, one commonality is a focus on information that has been significantly augmented over the past 5-10 years. This is done in an effort to “fill in any gaps” between a PT’s baccalaureate or master’s degree education and the current DPT program.
APTA strongly encourages practicing PTs to acquire the t-DPT. The organization unequivocally believes that an increase of DPTs will benefit the profession as a whole; however, it may cause physical therapists that don’t have the time or money to enroll in a t-DPT program to feel somewhat insecure about the future.
At the moment, however, job security for all physical therapists still appears to be solid. According to a report released last week by the Greater Cincinnati Health Council (using data from 28 hospitals in the tri-state area), physical therapists have an average vacancy rate of 13.5% (up from 9.3% in 2007). Occupational therapists are in high demand too. According to the same report, registered OTs have a vacancy rate of 16.7%, and PTAs and COTAs have vacancy rates of 13.1% and 14.7%, respectively. The report claims that changes to physical therapy education requirements are part of the vacancy problem. “Because physical therapists are now required to have a doctorate degree, Greater Cincinnati will experience a lack of graduates during the transition.” 
This concern, while genuine, appears to be superfluous. Dr. Joe Black insists that baccalaureate and master’s-level physical therapists will continue to be eligible for licensure and able to practice at any facility willing to hire them. However, he cautions that once every physical therapy program has converted to the doctoral degree, states may see fit to link the DPT with licensure. “In any case, it will be a state matter and, as always, no one can predict what a state may or may not do in the future.” 
Should APTA be successful in achieving its Vision 2020 goals, will other therapy professions follow suit? It’s certainly possible, but try not to let potential changes to education requirements become a source of stress. As a licensed therapist you are in high demand (the 30,000+ jobs on TherapyJobs.com are proof of that!), so enjoy the career you’ve chosen and take new education recommendations in stride.
For more information on the DPT and t-DPT programs, please visit the APTA website at www.apta.org
- Excerpts of an Interview with Jody Gandy, PT, DPT, PhD, Director of Clinical Education APTA.
- APTA Vision 2020.
- Sharon H. Fitzgerald, “Physical Therapy Goals for 2020 Well on Way to Fruition,” Medical News, Inc. October 2007.
- Dr. Joe Black. “Additional Questions on the DPT,” Transcript.
- FAQs: Transition Doctor of Physical Therapy (t-DPT) Degree.
- Lisa Huddleston, “Health Council Releases Annual Vacancy/Age Report and Nursing Demand/Supply Study,” April 20, 2009.