There are between 12,000 and 13,000 podiatrists in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that over the next ten years the profession will grow by 9%, which is about average for all jobs.
Podiatrists, or doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs), diagnose injury to or diseases of the lower leg or foot using laboratory tests or x-rays. Problems that podiatrists treat range from corns, ingrown toenails, calluses, heel spurs, bunions, arch problems, injuries to bone or muscle, deformities, and infections to very serious problems related to diabetes. In addition to determining the cause of a particular problem or set of problems, podiatrists offer treatment that may include medication, physical therapy, bone setting, or surgery. Podiatrists fit orthotics into shoes, create casts to lessen deformities, and create custom shoes. Some podiatrists employ a scanner or force plate to create orthotics. This involves the patient’s walking across a plate that is attached to a computer which notes pressure points and distribution of weight. With certain conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or arthritis, the feet are often the first part of the body to show distress. Diabetics frequently develop foot ulcers or infections due to inadequate circulation. When a podiatrist detects problems such as these, the patient is referred to the appropriate specialist. While most podiatrists have established a private practice, some work in a group practice with other healthcare providers. Board certified specialties include primary care, orthopedics, surgery, and public health. In addition, podiatrists can choose to specialize in sports medicine, dermatology, radiology, pediatrics, geriatrics, or diabetic foot issues.
Podiatrists with their own practices must do more than diagnose and treat patients; they must also act in a business capacity by hiring or firing employees, documenting visits, overseeing the ordering of supplies and billing, and so forth. Some podiatrists build their reputations and serve the community by providing educational lectures.
Podiatrists generally work in private offices or in clinics together with administrative personnel. Traveling to private homes or nursing homes to see patients or hospitals to perform surgeries is also part of their work setting. Many podiatrists keep their offices open in evening hours to accommodate patients. There are far fewer emergencies for podiatrists that for other physicians; this means they are better able to control their schedules.
All states require that podiatrists be licensed. To become licensed, a podiatrist must complete undergraduate studies, followed by a four-year college program in podiatry. Next, the applicant must pass both national and state examinations. Entry into a podiatry program also requires the applicant to first pass the Medical College Admission Test.
As undergraduates, students should have acquired a minimum of eight semester hours in the study of organic and inorganic chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as at least six hours of English. The Council on Podiatric Medical Education accredits programs of study. These programs require four years. In the first two years, students are trained in the classroom where they learn pathology, chemistry, anatomy, and pharmacology. During the last two years, students begin on-the-job experience in clinics or hospitals under supervision where they learn to do routine examinations, take patient histories, diagnose problems, analyze test results, and execute therapeutic procedures. Upon graduation, students are awarded a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) degree. Upon receipt of the degree, many podiatrists complete a two-to four year hospital residency where they participate in clinical rotations in pediatrics, anesthesiology, infectious diseases, internal medicine, emergency medicine, orthopedic, and general surgery in order to gain advanced training.
While each state establishes its own licensing requirements, many do grant reciprocity. Licensing requires graduation from an accredited program and the passing of both oral and written examinations, including the one given by the National Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners during the second and fourth years of podiatric medical college. A few states accept passing grades on these tests in lieu of the written state test. Most states mandate at least two years of postgraduate residency at an approved healthcare institution. Continuing education is required to keep licenses active.
Qualities of a good podiatrist include manual dexterity, good communication skills, aptitude in the sciences, and compassion. Several boards certify specialties such as primary medicine, surgery, and orthopedics with the fulfillment of certain requirements such as advanced training, further examinations, and a specific period of time in which the applicant actively practices podiatry. Managed-care groups look for podiatrists who are board-certified.
Career advancement can come in the form of a professorship, being promoted to department head, or becoming a general health administrator.
The median annual income of podiatrists is approximately $114,000. Those in group practice generally earn higher net incomes than do those in private practice. In addition, podiatrists working in a salaried position receive benefits such as insurances, vacation time, and retirement, while those who operate their own business do not.