Becoming a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor

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Two gap medics students with a member of medical staff in the hospital in Tanzania. Everyone gets an illness or injury occasionally. For some people, a medical problem can interfere with everyday life and their ability to function. That’s where physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors come in.








What does a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor do?

Physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians diagnose and treat patients with a variety of medical conditions, which may impair the patient’s ability to function normally. For example, doctors may treat patients with spinal cord injuries, strokes, traumatic brain injuries and various pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia.

The goal of a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor is to help improve a patient’s level of functioning as much as possible. The medical condition might not always be curable, but treatment may help improve quality of life. 

The rehabilitation physician performs tests and exams to determine the diagnosis. A treatment plan is developed to address ways to decrease pain, improve mobility or functioning and prevent further complications. The physician usually leads a team of allied health professionals including a speech, occupational and physical therapist. Social workers, counselors and neurologists may also work with a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor.

Education and training

As with other specialties, the road to becoming a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor is lengthy. College majors in premed, biology and chemistry are good choices for those interested in pursuing this career. A high GPA and scoring well on the medical school entrance exam is also essential. While in college, it can be helpful to volunteer at a rehabilitation hospital. You will get to see firsthand what a rehabilitation doctor does, plus it will look good on your medical school application. 

After four years of medical school, plan on another four years spent in a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency. In the United States, there are about 80 accredited residency programs in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

After residency, many physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors choose to complete a fellowship in a subspecialty, such as traumatic brain injury or sports medicine. Becoming board certified involves a written and oral exam given by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Salaries and career outlook

The career outlook for physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors appears to be positive. Since 2004, the need for physical medicine and rehab doctors has increased by about 14 percent each year. With advances in lifesaving procedures, people are surviving illness and accidents that they may have died from years ago. But survival does not always mean being able to function fully. This creates a demand for rehabilitation doctors.

Physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors practice in rehabilitation centers, sports medicine clinics, acute care hospitals and private practice. Salaries vary by geographic area and place of employment. In 2013, in the United States, the average salary for a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor was 235,000 a year.

If you are looking for a specialty where you not only treat a disease, but can greatly change the way a person lives, becoming a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor may be a great fit.

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