Misuse of the term ‘physical therapy’ can be dangerous to the patient

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OPINION — Unfortunately, the misuse or inappropriate advertisement of physical therapy services is a growing problem and can result in some patients not getting the exact treatment they desperately need.

While there are medical professionals who may use some similar methods and techniques as physical therapists, the term “physical therapy” is not a blanket one. True physical therapy must be carried out by someone professionally licensed as such.

It’s too bad there are a few health care providers who feel the need to operate using vague or general titles or encroach upon other professional titles and designations.

The following excerpt from The American Physical Therapy Association’s “Term and Title Protection” is a good explanation of this issue.

People who are not licensed physical therapists have held themselves out to the public as providing “physical therapy” or “physiotherapy,” or use the initials “PT” to describe their services. This characterization is misleading to the public, illegal in some states, and a disservice to individuals who are in need of physical therapy and who think they are receiving it, but in reality are not.

When the public receives treatment such as physical therapy, people deserve to know what treatment they are receiving and that the person performing the treatment is a licensed physical therapist (PT) who has the requisite education and training to provide the treatment.

Massage therapists, chiropractors, personal trainers, or health care practitioners may share some of the same treatment modalities or techniques that also are used by physical therapists; however, an intervention should only be described or advertised as physical therapy or physiotherapy when provided or supervised by a licensed physical therapist.

Physical therapy is not a generic term. It describes the care and services provided by or under the direction of a licensed physical therapist. Other health care providers have attempted to classify physical agents, mechanical modalities, and/or electrotherapy as “physical therapy” or “physiotherapy.” The use of these modalities can be described as the practice of physical therapy only when a licensed physical therapist provides the modalities. Some professions may use some of the same physical agents and modalities as physical therapists, but only physical therapists and physical therapist assistants under the direction and supervision of physical therapists practice “physical therapy.”

What makes the terms physical therapy and physiotherapy exclusive to the physical therapy profession is the distinct education of physical therapists, the special body of knowledge of the physical therapy profession, the regulatory standards and requirements for licensure as a physical therapist, and the unique perspective, specific skills, practice standards, and specialized care that are provided by licensed physical therapists.

The patient/client management elements of examination, evaluation, diagnosis, and prognosis should be represented and reimbursed as physical therapy only when they are performed by a physical therapist. Physical therapists are the only professionals who provide physical therapy examinations, evaluations, diagnoses, prognoses, and interventions based on the physical therapist’s examination and evaluative process. Intervention should be represented and reimbursed as physical therapy only when performed by a physical therapist or under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist.

The rationale behind term protection generally relates to the protection afforded to consumers and patients. Specifically, state regulatory bodies are often concerned that an individual or entity that is not properly qualified to provide physical therapy services may, for example, advertise or represent that physical therapy services are being provided, when in fact there is no physical therapist involved in the provision of services. A consumer also may mistakenly believe that someone using the initials “PT” is a licensed physical therapist, when in fact they are not.

In addition to consumer protection issues, term protection also seeks to address concerns relative to third party payers. For example, third party payers who bundle physical therapy benefits with those of other health care professionals may, depending on the time a service is provided, offer a “physical therapy” benefit that is in fact exhausted before the patient ever sees a licensed physical therapist. Additionally, allowing nonphysical therapists to use terms such as “physical therapy” may result in a payer reimbursing for a service that it believes to be physical therapy when in fact there is no physical therapist involved in the provision of services.

The protection of the terms physical therapy and physiotherapy is not referring to protection against the use of various physical agents, modalities, or procedures by others, but rather is against the inappropriate labeling of those modalities and procedures as physical therapy.

© 2017 American Physical Therapy Association. Reprinted with permission.

• S P O N S O R E D   C O N T E N T  •

Darren Marchant | Profile photo, St. George News

Written by DARREN MARCHANT.

Darren Marchant is a licensed physical therapist and CEO and founder of Fit Physical Therapy with clinics in St. George and in Mesquite and Overton, Nevada. He is board certified as an orthopedic clinical specialist. For other helpful articles or clinic information visit fit-pt.com.

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