What Makes Physical Therapy Different from Primary Care



Most of us have a primary care doctor we see whenever we are not feeling well. In fact, primary care is a given in the modern medical environment. The same is not true for physical therapy. It is possible to go your entire life without ever needing the services of a physical therapist. This suggests that many of us don’t know what physical therapy jobs are all about.

Along those same lines is a persistent myth that physical therapy is only about exercises. It is far more than that. When utilized properly, physical therapy can mean the difference between fully recovering from illness or injury as opposed to partial recovery followed by reliance on prescription medications or surgical procedures.

Therapists Are Not Doctors

So, what makes physical therapy different from primary care? A lot of things. First and foremost, physical therapists are not doctors. They do receive extensive training and are quite knowledgeable in human biology, physiology, etc. But they have not received the advanced medical school training that would otherwise allow them to do certain things – like prescribe drugs or perform surgery.

This is not necessarily a bad thing inasmuch as one of the goals of physical therapy is to provide a range of treatments that can mitigate the need for invasive procedures and prescriptions. You could make the case that some physical therapists measure success by how often pharmacological medical care can be avoided.

Treating Root Causes

Another big difference with physical therapy is that it is designed to treat root causes. For purposes of illustration, we turn to a SeacoastOnline.com piece published in September 2020. The post was written by a physical therapist with 20 years of experience.

She posed the scenario of a patient visiting her practice after being diagnosed with a bulging disc. The patient’s primary care physician provided the bulging disk diagnosis but went no further. Now, it is her job to figure out why the patient’s disc is bulging and what can be done to correct it.

Certain exercises can correct bad posture, for example, if it is what caused the bulging disc. The goal is to both relieve the pain of the injury and prevent it from returning. Making that happen requires treating the root cause of the problem.

More Opportunities for Creativity

Health Jobs Nationwide, a nationally known job board for medical professionals, says that physical therapists have more opportunities for creativity as well. That is because physical therapy is not an exact science. Neither is pharmacological medicine, but primary care physicians are typically required by insurance companies to follow a strict set of protocols commensurate with the illnesses or injuries being treated.

A primary care physician diagnosing a bulging disc follows a set protocol. There may be three or four steps to that protocol. Doctors will generally not go outside the prescribed guidelines unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Physical therapists are not so tightly restricted. They have the opportunity to develop the best ways to treat individual patients based on their particular needs and circumstances. They may develop an exercise program for one patient but a completely different program, with very few exercises, for another patient presenting the same complaints.

Physical therapy jobs are different because the concept of physical therapy is designed to be different. Physical therapy is not pharmacological medicine. It is not about writing prescriptions and performing surgeries. Rather, it is about finding the root causes of a particular problem and treating it in such a way as to promote healing and prevent future injury. At least that is the way it is supposed to be.