Alphabet Soup. What do all those letters mean?

By Jill Daniel, Freelance Healthcare Writer


Acronyms, the abbreviations that we can find in all aspects of our lives, are intended to give us a little more insight into an individual’s training, or further explanation of the mission of a particular organization.

They’re supposed to make our lives easier, right? Thanks to those little strings of letters we save a precious second here or there not having to recall a phrase or title in its entirety.

In this world of multi-tasking and over-extension, shortcuts are often welcomed. That is, unless we have to stop to wonder what they mean at all or read right over them because we don’t know and they lose all their value anyway.

Healthcare may be the worse offender of acronyms. So here, let’s take away some of the mystery and for at least physical therapists define what those letters at the end of clinicians’ names mean.

PT. A PT is a physical therapist. Obvious, I know. It’s actually been trademarked for physical therapy professionals. PTs can be DPTs, MPTs, and MSPTs – the distinction being doctorate versus master’s level coursework.

At first glance, you may think it’s a no-brainer to go with the DPT because although all have passed a state licensure exam, he or she has a degree one level beyond the master’s. Not so fast.

According to Karen Kovacs, PT, MPT, OCS (we’ll explain that one, too, later), the primary difference between the two programs is an increased emphasis on imaging, pharmacology and the requirement of a lengthier practical experience within the doctoral program.

Students graduating from such programs are immediately permitted to see a patient without a prescription from a referring physician. The MPT/MSPT simply has to take a short additional training and earn a direct access certificate.

The national organization that accredits PT programs, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), has determined that all accredited programs in the United States will award doctorates by 2017. If a physical therapist graduated prior to that determination being made, he or she earned a master’s degree. What needs to be taken into consideration based on your unique goals and needs, is the physical therapist’s experience, training, and the next area of mass confusion – specializations.

OCS. PCS. CHT. Oh, my! Physical therapists have the option to earn additional credentials that indicate a specialization in working with specific populations. Usually the therapist is required to demonstrate 2000 hours of direct care in the specialty area within a three-year period. Such certifications include orthopedic (OCS), pediatric (PCS), hand therapy (CHT), manual therapy (CIMT), among others. One of the latest specializations includes Trigger Point Dry Needling (CMTPT). And yes, I did Google all of those.

CPT. A CPT is not a PT. A CPT is a certified personal trainer and there is no national organization like CAPTE that requires certain standards be met in order for the program to exist.

Katie Benick MS, CSCS, and Director of Performance Services for Tidewater Physical Therapy explained that the programs can range from a program administered solely online requiring a high school diploma or GED and a tuition payment to be eligible; to probably the most rigorous credential requiring a bachelor’s degree, the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential administered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

At Tidewater Performance, trainers and coaches are required to have degrees and certifications and they work closely with PTs.

Ask. No, that’s not an acronym. Just some advice. If you are getting ready to work with a new clinician, whether in a PT clinic or a doctor’s office, and are curious about what the letters at the end of their name mean, just ask. Even in healthcare, we are consumers and shop. Asking about a clinician’s qualifications is just part of the process and chances are they’ll be glad to tell you.

Jill Daniel is a freelance writer based in Gloucester, Va. She is an avid endurance athlete, mother and consumer of healthcare. Education, whether in the classroom or life, is her passion.