Question: What is podiatry?

Answer:  Podiatry is a field of medicine that strives to improve the overall health and well-being of patients by focusing on preventing, diagnosing, and treating conditions associated with the foot and ankle. Doctors of Podiatric Medicine (DPMs) are physicians and surgeons who practice on the lower extremities, primarily on feet and ankles. The preparatory education of most DPMs includes four years of undergraduate work, followed by four years in an accredited podiatric medical school, followed by a hospital-based residency. DPMs are licensed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to diagnose and treat the foot and its related or governing structures by medical, surgical, or other means. The vast majority of states also include ankle care as part of the podiatric physician's scope of practice.

In addition to private practice, podiatrists serve on the staffs of hospitals and long-term care facilities, on the faculties of schools of medicine, as commissioned officers in the Armed Forces and the US Public Health Service, in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in municipal health departments. Many podiatrists today are also members of group medical practices.

The skills of podiatric physicians are in increasing demand because disorders of the foot and ankle are among the most widespread and neglected health problems.

Who is Today’s Podiatrist?  

Today’s podiatrists are doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs), also known as podiatric physicians and surgeons, qualified by their education and training to diagnose and treat conditions affecting the foot, ankle and structures of the leg. Licensed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, there are approximately 15,000 podiatrists practicing in the United States.

Today’s Podiatrist Does it All

Podiatrists are uniquely qualified among medical professionals to treat the foot and ankle. Given its specialization, podiatry is to the foot and ankle what ophthalmology is to the eye or cardiology is to the heart. Whether it’s sports medicine, pediatrics, dermatology or diabetes, today’s podiatrist can tackle the many diverse facets of foot care. Podiatrists are often the first to identify systemic diseases in patients, such as diabetes and associated complications, high blood pressure and heart disease. Patients from all walks of life and of all ages—from pediatric to geriatric—require the expertise that only a doctor of podiatric medicine can provide. Today’s podiatrists:

• perform surgery
• perform complete medical histories and physical examinations
• prescribe medications
• set fractures and treat sports-related injuries
• prescribe and fit orthotics, insoles, and custom-made shoes
• order and perform physical therapy
• take and interpret X-rays and other imaging studies
• work as valued members of a community’s health care team

In fact, a recent assessment found, podiatrists provided close to 40 percent of all foot care services in the United States, compared to 13 percent for orthopedic physicians and 37 percent for all other physicians, including primary care doctors. Nearly all health insurance plans provide coverage for the services of doctors of podiatric medicine. Podiatrists work in a variety of healthcare settings, including private or small group practices. Many also serve on the staff of hospitals and long-term care facilities, faculties of schools of medicine and nursing, as commissioned officers in the Armed Forces and U.S. Public Health Service, in the Department of Veterans Affairs and in local health departments.

Uniquely Qualified

Doctors of podiatric medicine receive medical education and training comparable to medical doctors, including four years of undergraduate education, four years of graduate education at one of nine podiatric medical colleges and two or three years of hospital-based residency training. All podiatrists receive a DPM degree. For a complete listing of podiatric medical colleges, visit www.apma.org/colleges.

Most practicing podiatrists are board certified. Certification is considered to be an earned credential for those podiatric physicians who have achieved certain levels of skill and ability based upon completion of specific advanced training and clinical experience and examination. The American Board of Podiatric Orthopedics and Primary Podiatric Medicine (ABPOPPM) is the certifying board for the specialty areas of podiatric orthopedics and primary podiatric medicine. The American Board of Podiatric Surgery (ABPS) is the certifying board for the specialty area of foot and ankle surgery.

Podiatrists in Demand

As the number of aging Americans increases, along with a rapidly rising rate of people with obesity and diabetes in United States, so too will the demand for podiatrists. According to a study conducted by the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the State University of New York at Albany, the number of podiatric physicians would need to triple in order to meet population demands by 2014. Adding to the profession’s appeal, podiatric medicine touts one of the highest paying salaries in the medical field and a flexible lifestyle, placing it on Forbes’ “America’s Best Paying Jobs” list. Quality of life, job versatility and ample compensation make podiatry an attractive and viable career option for many entering the medical workforce. For more information about a career in podiatric medicine, visit www.apma.org/careers 

Used with permission: Copyright 2009, American Podiatric Medical Association, Inc.