I am a physiatrist and although I don’t actively see patients now that I am making OESH Shoes, I am still frequently asked, “What is a physiatrist?”

A physiatrist is a physician who has completed four years of medical school and then has completed an additional four years of residency training in the medical specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). When I was chair of the department of PM&R at the University of Virginia, every year we would have a graduation ceremony for that year’s graduating class when the residents’ parents and often their new families would fly in from wherever to help celebrate. I would give a little introduction that kicked off the evening…

“You may still wonder what your child or spouse’s medical specialty is exactly. The thing is that it takes a little more explaining than most fields. Unlike most medical specialties, we don’t specialize in just one organ system, body part, or orifice…”

Physiatrists take care of people of all ages with all sorts of diagnoses. We are expert in helping people recover from traumatic events such as a stroke, brain or spinal cord injury. But we are also expert in taking care of all types of musculoskeletal aches and pains. I used to say if you had to pick one word to describe what we are then we should say “function.” We’re function doctors. We help get people to their fullest capacity, to their full function.

A physiatrist studies the whole body in relationship to the outside world. We have a keen understanding of movement. We typically prescribe exercise, not medicines. We don’t do surgery. And we tend to recommend things that go on the outside, not the inside of the body — like leg braces, canes, walkers, and…shoes.

If Hollywood ever did a show on physiatrists, say “PM&R,” it just wouldn’t have the same drama as “ER.” PM&R is more like Mary in the “Mary Tyler Moore” show. PM&R has just never gotten the glamour that Ted Knight got, but all the meanwhile, there is a huge growing need for a physiatrist’s services. We are all living longer. Eventually we all get things that limit our mobility. At this very moment, a full one in ten people in the United States have difficulty walking. Not just because of a stroke, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury. But because of musculoskeletal related issues, like osteoarthritis. These musculoskeletal issues don’t get much attention on prime time but meanwhile, in medical schools around the country, perhaps because of the growing need for our services, PM&R has become the new “hot” field.

My last year as department chair in 2009, we had over 600 highly qualified medical school applicants for only 4 residency spots. Comparatively, in 1993, when we had just established our new residency program in PM&R at Harvard Medical School, we had about a dozen applicants for 4 spots, and one of that dozen, was just finishing up a prison term for murder. Okay, it was just manslaughter and he had done very well, moving up from high to low security confinement and had done loads of community service. But his application was a bit different than the applicant in 2009, who received top grades in medical school, scored the highest on the national medical examination, was an accomplished musician and athlete, was a joy to talk to, and hadn’t committed murder (at least to my knowledge).

To learn more about what a physiatrist is or how to find one in your area, visit our specialty’s main organization, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

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