Picture this: Once vibrant and active, a resilient individual faces challenges as their mobility is limited and progress feels like an uphill battle. In the diverse world of medical specialties, who can they turn to for hope and a chance at regaining their health? Enter physiatrists—the architects of rehabilitation. They act as a bridge between a disrupted life and the journey back to normalcy, addressing individuals’ specific physical and neurological needs to offer tailored and comprehensive care.

If you are interested in becoming a physiatrist, keep reading to learn about the steps, skills, and opportunities of this rewarding career. Discover how to become a physiatrist and step into a world where you can help rebuild, restore, and rejuvenate people’s lives daily.

What Is a Physiatrist?

A physiatrist is a specialized medical doctor focusing on physical medicine and rehabilitation. They are experts in diagnosing the root cause of pain and formulating comprehensive treatment plans. 

Physiatrists have a diverse scope of practice and can specialize in physical medicine, which involves managing joint and back pain. Alternatively, they can specialize in rehabilitation, which involves assisting those with central nervous system injuries such as strokes, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and multiple sclerosis.

What Does a Physiatrist Do? 

Physiatrists play a crucial role in identifying and managing various sources of pain resulting from injuries, illnesses, or medical conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, and muscles. They focus on specific areas like neurorehabilitation for conditions like spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, or strokes; pain medicine for chronic pain management; musculoskeletal care, including autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis; and sports injuries such as tendonitis, stress fractures, and concussions. This enables them to tailor treatment plans for each patient.

Physiatrists also provide postoperative care, which is often required for joint replacements, organ transplants, and heart surgeries. The most common medical conditions treated by physiatrists include back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia, brain injuries, sports injuries, spinal cord injuries, and arthritis. To diagnose patients, physiatrists employ not only examinations and imaging techniques like X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRIs but also perform various procedures such as electromyography, nerve conduction studies, trigger point injections, musculoskeletal ultrasound, spasticity management, and other interventions like acupuncture and stem cell treatment.

The collaborative nature of physiatry involves assembling a treatment team that may include primary care doctors, orthopedic surgeons, cardiologists, occupational medicine physicians, neurologists, physical and occupational therapists, rehabilitation nurses, psychologists, social workers, and recreational therapists. By tailoring the approach to each patient’s specific needs, the treatment team works together to help patients improve their quality of life.

how-to-become-a-physiatrist

How to Become a Physiatrist

Becoming a physiatrist is a demanding and structured process, which begins with earning a bachelor’s degree and is finalized with a certification from the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR) to establish professional credentials. The role of a physiatrist requires an in-depth understanding of physical medicine and rehabilitation, making the educational journey both comprehensive and specialized.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step toward becoming a physiatrist is earning a bachelor’s degree. While there isn’t a specific major requirement, individuals aspiring to become physiatrists often pursue degrees in chemistry, biology, or a related field to build a strong foundation in the sciences.

Students focus on completing prerequisite coursework that aligns with medical school admission requirements during their undergraduate years. Engaging in extracurricular activities, obtaining healthcare-related experience, and maintaining a competitive GPA are crucial components of a successful application to medical school. The bachelor’s degree serves as the stepping stone for the more intensive and specialized education that follows.

2. Attend medical school

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, aspiring physiatrists must attend a medical school program to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Medical school typically spans four years and is divided into preclinical and clinical phases. 

During the preclinical years, students study foundational sciences, while the clinical years involve hands-on experience in various medical specialties.

To excel in the competitive field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, students may choose electives or rotations relevant to this discipline during their clinical years.

3. Complete a residency

Following medical school, individuals aspiring to become physiatrists undergo residency training in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Residency programs typically last four years and provide comprehensive training in diagnosing, treating, and rehabilitating patients with diverse physical and neurological conditions. 

Residents gain hands-on experience in various clinical settings, working closely with experienced physiatrists. The residency period is crucial for honing clinical skills, gaining exposure to diverse patient populations, and developing expertise in complex cases.

4. Consider a fellowship program

While not mandatory, some physiatrists pursue fellowship programs to further specialize in a specific aspect of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Fellowships offer additional training in sports medicine, spinal cord injury, brain injury, or pediatric rehabilitation.

These programs provide an opportunity to deepen knowledge and expertise in a niche field, making physiatrists more versatile and adept at addressing complex patient needs.

5. Earn board certification 

Lastly, to establish professional credibility and demonstrate proficiency in physical medicine and rehabilitation, physiatrists must earn certification from the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR). Achieving this certification involves passing a rigorous examination that assesses knowledge, skills, and clinical judgment.

Board certification reflects a commitment to maintaining high standards of practice and staying current with advancements in the field, further solidifying a physiatrist’s qualifications and competence.

Essential Skills of a Physiatrist

Becoming a successful physiatrist requires a blend of technical expertise and soft skills. Technical proficiency is essential for diagnosing and treating a diverse array of physical and neurological conditions. On the other hand, soft skills are crucial for effective communication with patients, collaborating with interdisciplinary teams, and providing empathetic care.

Some essential skills and traits that distinguish an adept physiatrist include:

  • Mastery of medical knowledge and skills related to physical medicine and rehabilitation
  • Capability to communicate complex medical information to patients and their families
  • Compassion and understanding to connect with patients on a personal level
  • Collaboration with diverse healthcare professionals for comprehensive patient care
  • Flexibility in adapting to evolving medical practices and advancements
  • Capability to critically analyze medical data, diagnostic results, and treatment options
  • Aptitude for devising effective and innovative solutions to address patients’ unique rehabilitation needs
  • Ability to lead and guide interdisciplinary teams for optimal patient outcomes
  • Sensitivity and awareness of cultural differences to provide inclusive and respectful care
  • Dedication to advocating for patients’ well-being and ensuring their voices are heard in the healthcare process
  • Efficient allocation of time for patient consultations, administrative tasks, and ongoing education
  • Capability to handle the emotional demands of the profession and maintain composure in challenging situations
  • Commitment to staying updated on the latest medical advancements and incorporating evidence-based practices into patient care
  • Precision in medical assessments, documentation, and treatment plans to ensure accuracy and effectiveness
  • Familiarity with medical software, imaging tools, and technological advancements relevant to physical medicine and rehabilitation

Career Growth and Opportunities

The physical medicine and rehabilitation field offers promising career growth and diverse opportunities for physicians. The overall job outlook for physicians is projected to grow by 3 percent from 2022 to 2032. 

Physiatrists can explore various avenues for career advancement, including:

  • Teaching and research roles in academic institutions
  • Establishing a private practice specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation
  • Leading rehabilitation departments or collaborating with multidisciplinary teams
  • Pursuing subspecialty certifications in areas like sports medicine, pain management, or pediatric rehabilitation

The Financial Perspective

Physiatrists can anticipate a competitive financial perspective as they progress in their careers as data shows that the median annual wage for physiatrists in the United States is estimated to be $244,155.

However, this figure can vary based on the years of experience, geographic location, type of employer, and specialization. The physiatrist salary range typically spans from $183,000 to $342,000 annually. It’s crucial to consider these factors when considering potential earning opportunities in the field.

Challenges and Considerations

Embarking on a career as a physiatrist presents both educational and professional challenges. The extensive education, including medical school and residency, requires significant time and dedication. Then, once in practice, physiatrists may face challenges such as navigating complex patient cases, coordinating interdisciplinary care, and keeping pace with advancements in medical knowledge.

However, with resilience, perseverance, and a positive attitude, one can overcome these challenges. Hard work and dedication are the keys to success in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and the reward of making a meaningful impact on patients’ lives makes the journey worthwhile.

The Bottom Line

Becoming a physiatrist is a demanding journey that requires years of education and training. However, this journey is what shapes professionals capable of providing personalized and compassionate care to those in need. The challenges encountered along the way become stepping stones that hone skills and instill the resilience necessary to navigate the complexities of patient care.

As a physiatrist, you have the opportunity to make a profound impact on people’s lives. Every obstacle you overcome during your journey to this noble profession serves as preparation. You can step into a field where your passion for healing converges with a profession that matters. Become a physiatrist today and play a crucial role in shaping a healthier, more resilient world.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
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Is a physiatrist a physician?

Yes, a physiatrist is indeed a physician. The term physiatrist entails a medical doctor who specializes in the physical medicine and rehabilitation field. They undergo extensive medical education, including obtaining an MD or DO degree, complete residency training in physical medicine and rehabilitation, as well as pursue board certification, just like most other physicians.

What is the difference between physical therapy and physiatry?

Physical therapy and physiatry are related fields but have distinct roles in healthcare. Physiatrists provide medical management and coordinate overall rehabilitation plans, while physical therapists implement specific therapeutic interventions to improve functional outcomes.

What is another name for physiatry?

Another name for physiatry is “physical medicine and rehabilitation” (PM&R). Both terms are used to describe the medical specialty focused on the diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of individuals with various physical and neurological conditions.