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How to Become a Physiatrist

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Physiatrist is a word easily confused with psychiatrist, but the two are quite different. A psychiatrist deals with mental illness, while a physiatrist is a physician who specializes in musculoskeletal problems and rehabilitation medicine. As physicians, physiatrists are trained to lead a multidisciplinary rehabilitation team that includes other healthcare professionals such as dietitians; physical, speech and occupational therapists; nurses and prosthetists. To become a physiatrist, you must first become a physician and then complete special training in physiatry.

Getting Into Medical School

The first step in your physiatrist education is to get a bachelor’s degree to enter medical school and also pass the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. You don't need a specific physiatrist degree and can earn your bachelor’s degree can be in any subject as long as you meet the medical school prerequisites for courses such as biology, chemistry, math and English.

Medical school training for a physiatrist is the same as for any other medical discipline, as it is the basic training in medicine every physician must have. You can choose between a traditional medical school and an osteopathic medical school. The training is essentially the same, but osteopaths are trained from the holistic -- or whole person -- primary care perspective. Osteopaths also receive training in spinal manipulation and other hands-on forms of healing.

Residency Medical Training

In residency your training branches off from training for other medical specialties. Your first year of training is in generalized medicine, while the remaining three years focus on physiatry. Some physiatry programs offer only a three-year residency, which means you must complete your first or intern year at another institution and then transition into a physiatry residency. Medical students can choose an intern year in family medicine, pediatrics, general medicine or surgery, or an osteopathic intern year, according to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

During residency, you will study neurologic disorders, learn how to manage patients after a stroke or amputation and care for patients with spinal cord injuries. You will see patients in the acute phase of their illness as well as during the rehabilitative phase. Most physiatry programs also encourage research during residency.

Specialty Physiatrist Study

Although the training is comprehensive, some physiatrists decide to specialize and go on for further training in a specialty fellowship. Possible specialty choices include neurorehabilitation, pain medicine, musculoskeletal care, sports injuries or sports medicine, postoperative care, pediatrics and specialized rehabilitation, which can include the use of dance as therapy, family training for home-care management or palliative care. Physiatrists who are interested in research often choose a residency program that lasts five years and includes an extra year for research, then go on to a specialty fellowship with a focus on research.

Licensing, Physiatrist Certification and Outlook

In addition to your training, you must pass a licensing exam to practice medicine. Most physiatrists also choose to become board-certified in the field, although certification is not required for practice. Physiatrist certification is available from the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and consists of two exams – one written and one oral.

Physiatrist Job Outlook

The BLS notes job growth for physicians such as physiatrists is projected to be 13 percent from 2016 to 2026, slightly faster than the average growth of 7 percent predicted for all occupations. The job site PayScale reports the average annual salary for physiatrists was $205,909 in 2019.


Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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