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The physical therapy clinical specialization program is administered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), which is the governing board for the specialist certification program within the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). To date, more than 20,000 physical therapists have achieved board certification in the specialty areas of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary, Clinical Electrophysiologic, Geriatric, Neurologic, Orthopaedic, Pediatric, Sports, and Women's Health physical therapy. The number of certified specialists has grown from 197 in 1990 to 20,144 in 2016.

ABPTS surveyed employers of board certified physical therapists to answer the following question: How do employers of physical therapists across various practice settings recognize the value and meaning of the ABPTS certified specialist credential?

Survey Response Rate

The response rate was 56%, with seven hundred fifty four surveys returned and used for data analysis. The employment facilities that were surveyed included private practice offices, outpatient facilities or clinics, acute care hospitals, academic institutions, skilled nursing/extended care/intermediate care facilities, sub-acute rehab hospital (inpatient), home care, and school systems. Respondents reported active involvement in oversight responsibility for the physical therapy function/program at their facility and the supervision of physical therapists, with more than 96% reporting being involved in hiring and employee selection. Accordingly, the survey data provided a valuable source of information about the meaning and value of the specialist certification credential to employers of physical therapists.

The survey posed eleven questions about issues related to the survey respondent's facility and ABPTS clinical specialization. Because it was hypothesized that responses would differ according to practice setting, the data were cross-tabulated on the basis of practice setting. Highlights from this section of survey follow:

Awareness and Use of ABPTS Specialist Certification

Almost half the facilities use ABPTS board certification in marketing efforts. 63% of employers in private practice and 58% of the academic institutions report doing so. These data suggest that the presence of certified specialists on staff in these practice settings is perceived as valuable by employers in attracting patients/clients or, in the case of academic institutions, students to the facility.

Facilities' Support of ABPTS Specialist Certification

  • 53% of the facilities pay at least some of the cost associated with obtaining ABPTS clinical specialization for employees. Private practice clinics and acute care hospitals are most likely to offer this benefit, with approximately 60% reporting they pay at least some of the associated costs.

Incentives for Board Certified Specialists

  • 39% of total respondents reported that a salary increase would be considered as a result of obtaining specialist certification. These salary increases most often occur in the private practice setting (48%). The finding that almost half of the respondents in private practice settings indicated that their facility considers a salary increase for ABPTS certification may reflect the flexibility and financial resources that employers in private practice have to provide financial rewards to their employees.
  • Incentives to become board certified most frequently occur in academic institutions (45%).
  • 43% of respondents reported non-financial rewards, such as change in job title or increase in authority or responsibility, would be considered as a result of an employee obtaining specialist certification. These percentages differ across employment settings. Almost 65% of employers in sub-acute rehabilitation hospitals and half of the employers in outpatient facilities and private practice offer their employees a non-financial reward for becoming certified. These rewards are less frequent in school systems and academic settings.

Hiring Preferences for Board Certified Specialists

  • 43% of total respondents report that job applicants are given priority in hiring because they are ABPTS board-certified. More than half of employers in private practice and academic institutions give priority in hiring to certified specialists.

Employers Perceptions on Performance Outcomes of Certified Specialists Compared with Other Physical Therapists

Survey respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement with eleven indicators of outcomes of job performance for ABPTS certified specialists. Because it was hypothesized that responses would differ according to practice setting, data were cross-tabulated on the basis of practice setting. Highlights from this section of the study follow:

  • More than half (53%) of the total respondents agreed that there are differences in clinical outcomes (i.e. functional improvement and patient satisfaction) between certified specialists and other physical therapists. Respondents from private practice (64%) or outpatient facilities (58%) were the most likely to report differences in clinical outcomes. 
  • Almost half of the total respondents (45%) agreed that certified specialists routinely manage patients with more complex patient conditions than other physical therapists; more than half of the employers in private practice and outpatient facilities agreed. 
  • Approximately 39% of total respondents agreed that certified specialists manage patients more efficiently than other physical therapists. Almost half of those in private practice, outpatient facilities, and home care agreed with this statement. 
  • 37% of the total respondents believe that there is a difference in the number of patients referred from other health care professionals directly to certified specialists versus other physical therapists. About half of the employers from private practice and outpatient facilities were in agreement. 
  • About 35% of the total respondents indicate that certified specialists hold more leadership/management positions, have been employed longer at the facility, and make more of an effort to market themselves. 
  • Half of the total respondents (50%) agree that certified specialists assume non-patient care roles (e.g. educator, researcher, consultant) more effectively than other physical therapists. Respondents in school settings were most likely to agree (60%).

Using the Data

Results of this study provide a starting point for ABPTS to evaluate how the specialist certification program is viewed by and meets the needs of key stakeholders, specifically the employers of physical therapists. Within this sample, employers are aware of specialist certification and many provide support for the process of achieving specialist certification.

Of note,

  1. more than half of the employers surveyed pay some of the costs associated with obtaining clinical specialization; and
  2. 43% of employers indicate that job applicants who are board-certified are given priority in hiring. In some facilities, a salary increase and/or other reward, such as a change in job title, increase in authority or responsibility, is considered as a result of obtaining specialist certification. Overall, the data suggest that many employers, particularly those in private practice, academic settings, hospitals, and outpatient facilities, value ABPTS specialist certification and demonstrate this value by providing financial compensation and non-financial rewards to physical therapists who achieve specialist certification.

Physical therapists may also find this information useful in helping them better understand current employer perceptions regarding specialist certification in various practice settings as well as potential outcomes associated with being a certified specialist. Overall, the results of this study suggest that being a certified specialist may make a physical therapist more marketable and open career opportunities.

Ready To Get Started?

It takes time and commitment, but the personal and professional rewards that come with achieving board-certified specialist status can last an entire career. 

What You Should Know Before Applying