James started at the slip of paper his doctor handed him in the hospital. The physician had written physiatrist, along with a name and a telephone number, on a blank prescription form.
He frowned, not even sure how to pronounce the unfamiliar word. His doctor quickly explained that a physiatrist was a physician who would help him complete the rehabilitation required after his accident.
According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R), a physiatrist is a medical doctor with a number of specialized functions. He or she is also known as a rehabilitation physician.
What a physiatrist does
This type of doctor is an expert at diagnosing and treating pain. He or she attempts to restore a patient’s maximum function after an injury, illness or other debilitating condition.
Physiatrists usually lead a team of health care professionals who treat the whole person instead of just one problem area. These specialists help design a patient’s treatment plan and also work on prevention of additional problems. Their treatments are non-surgical.
The conditions physiatrists treat all affect how a person moves. They involve nerves, muscles and bones. The objective of treatment is to reduce pain and increase performance without resorting to surgery. Physiatry is one of 24 medical fields the American Board of Medical Specialties has certified.
After earning an M.D. from a medical school, anyone who wants to become a physiatrist must complete a four-year residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. This training includes a year to develop basic clinical skills plus three more years in the complete scope of the specialty.
Doctors can apply to 80 accredited residency programs in the United States. Some elect to complete post-residency fellowships or other training in specialized areas like pediatrics, spinal cord injury and sports medicine.
A physiatrist can become board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation after passing both a written and an oral exam administered by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR).
How physiatry began
This medical specialty dates to the 1930s. It originally focused only on musculoskeletal and neurological problems. The scope expanded greatly after World War II, when thousands of disabled veterans returned to the U.S.
The Advisory Board of the Medical Specialties named physiatry an approved specialty in 1947.
How to find a physiatrist
While many of the 7,500 physiatrists in the U.S. practice in rehabilitation centers and hospitals, some work out of private offices. Although some have a generalized practice, others choose to focus on a subspecialty like geriatric medicine, brain injury or pediatrics.
Many patients who need rehabilitation receive formal or informal referrals from the physicians who followed them in the hospital.