Ask an Expert: To Certify or Not – Orthopedic Board Certification in Physical Therapy

Our experts at MOTION are committed to advancing the practice of physical, occupational and speech therapy through research and practical experience. In this ‘Ask an Expert’ blog series, they answer topical questions on key issues and trends in this growing segment of the healthcare industry.

We sat down with MOTION Multisite Director, Lynn Marro, PT, DPT, OCS, to talk about the work involved in becoming a certified orthopedic clinical specialist (OCS), a distinction that fewer than 10% of physical therapists hold.

Q: Who is the ideal candidate for an OCS certification? 

Lynn:  There are two important factors to consider when deciding if an OCS certification is right for you. The first is timing. You need to have clinical experience (minimum 2,000 hours) before you can even apply for this board certification. In working through an OCS board certification myself and mentoring others, I can testify to the advantage of knowing the basics of patient care, evaluation, treatment skills, and clinical interaction. All of these make the certification process immensely more fruitful. I would say that at a minimum, a physical therapist should be practicing for about three years before applying—and that’s maybe even a little soon.

The other factor is more intrinsic. I’m not going to mince words. Becoming a board-certified OCS is not easy. It will require a significant investment of personal time and energy. You need to be willing to take a year and commit to studying, in addition to work and life. But it’s achievable. In my opinion, every therapist would benefit. It truly makes you a better therapist. But you have to want it.

Q: What are the benefits of holding an OCS certification?

Lynn: I have been a lifelong learner; it is a big part of who I am. Taking on an OCS certification was a natural step for me, but what was interesting throughout that journey and in my own professional career was gaining insight into the true value of this (or any specialty) certification.

In my opinion, the benefits of holding an OCS certification are both intangible and tangible. It helps you as a physical therapist to deliver evidence-based patient care. It also makes you more marketable as an employee. If you are pursuing a physical therapy career within a health system or organization, an OCS title can positively influence your base salary and annual increases, as well as be an important consideration in promotion opportunities for leadership positions.

A board-certified specialist is also often in higher demand by savvy patients and referring physicians, which means it will be an advantage in building a patient following and referral network throughout your career

Q: What if a PT is not confident that they will be able to pass the board exam?

Lynn: Of course, for all the time and cost spent, you want to receive a certification. If you achieve it, it opens doors for you with prospective employers and patients. But honestly, the preparation alone makes the therapist better. The action of studying for the certification teaches you new skills, challenges your conventions, and opens up your approach. All of these things allow you to better treat your patient, which also benefits your career development and helps you to build a loyal patient base. Take advantage of any assistance offered by your school or employer to help ready yourself for the exam. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) also offers valuable resources and support to therapists interested in pursuing an OCS.

Q: What are the advanced skills that you learn in an OCS certification program?

Lynn: The OCS certification program trains you as a PT to think critically. For many therapists, this was not part of the original curriculum when they became a PT. It has more recently become a part of the PT student agenda, but the OCS certification takes it further. This study format pushes the learner to look at research and studies, evaluating and critiquing the evidence.

It challenges us as PTs to move beyond our treatment “routines.” As we gain experience in our field, we tend to fall into patterns of thinking and behavior. We find comfort and ease in treating similar patients in a similar way. On one level we are becoming “masters” at a certain injury or issue, but on another level we may also find ourselves becoming complacent. Taking on an OCS certification makes you a better critical thinker and opens you to trying things beyond what you “normally do.”

As physical therapists we have chosen a field where our job is to continue to improve and help patients as best we can. An OCS certification is a valuable milestone on that journey that helps improve the health of society.

Lynn Marro, PT, DPT, graduated from New York University with a degree in Physical Therapy in 1991. She received her DPT from Dominican College in 2009. Lynn is a Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist. She has had a wide range of experience working in acute care and rehabilitation hospitals prior to specializing in outpatient physical therapy. Lynn has taken courses from some of the leaders in the field of physical therapy.

Lynn is the Multi-Site Director of the Rockland Division of MOTION Sports Medicine. When not at work, she enjoys walking with her dog, dancing, scuba diving/snorkeling and traveling the world.