What do all of those letters mean after the physical therapist’s name?

Physical therapy credentials (all those letters after the name) can be confusing. Physical therapy education has progressed over the years. Entry-level physical therapy practice (meaning the degree you have when you finish school) has changed over the years from a certificate to a Bachelor’s degree (“PT”) to a Master’s degree (MSPT) and currently to a doctoral degree (DPT). These changes have been made over time to support the autonomy of physical therapists as specialist medical providers with a unique skill set.

Patients often ask if it is better to see a PT who is a DPT versus one who is a MSPT. This is a complicated question since there are many more factors than just the credentials. More than anything, the credentials often are more reflective of when a therapist graduated from school (for example, therapists with a DPT are more likely to have graduated in the past 10-15 years unless they returned to school to get their tDPT (transitional DPT)). The DPT training programs include more formal coursework on things like differential diagnosis (determining what is the underlying cause of a patient’s symptoms), imaging (like reviewing X-rays, MRIs, etc.), business education, and may also include a more formal research or capstone project and more hours of clinical training.

In spite of this formal education and training, however, it is also important to recognize that PTs also gain a lot of skill, knowledge, and expertise through their patient care experiences, their mentors, and their continuing education, and a PT who graduated from a Bachelor’s degree program with 30 years of clinical experience and who has completed much specialized training and continuing education in a specific area may be way more knowledgeable about a patient’s condition than a DPT who graduated more recently.