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What the heck is a "rehab doc?" Part 1

One medical specialty has managed to avoid (nearly completely) the public eye: Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (or PM&R). Physicians who choose this specialty are referred to as “physiatrists” or “rehabilitation medicine specialists” or “rehab docs.” But the truth is that very few people understand what they do, and unfortunately the rehab docs haven’t made much of an effort to explain themselves to their peers or the world at large.

A dear friend and mentor once asked me, “why did you choose such an odd ball specialty?” This rather direct question forced me to ponder my career decision, and to determine how it came to pass that PM&R was given the unhappy reputation of “odd ball specialty.” I’ll begin with a little background about the specialty and then explain why I chose to devote my life to it.

The history of PM&R

PM&R really traces its roots back to the American Civil War (1861-1865). This gruesome battle resulted in over 620,000 casualties and over 60,000 limb amputations. The modern specialty of general surgery developed through life saving trial and error on the battlefield. Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, was performing an average of 39 surgeries/year before the civil war, and this increased to 2,427 in the late 1800’s.

But physicians and surgeons were not prepared for the aftermath of war – tens of thousands of maimed and partially limbless now trying to live out their careers in a disabled condition. One confederate soldier, James E. Hanger, lost a leg in the war, and subsequently created America’s first prosthetics company, still in operation today. Unfortunately for the disabled, though, there was no guarantee that appropriate accommodations would be made for them to be fully reintegrated into society.

With the rise of surgery came a major realization: patients did not do well after surgery if they remained in bed. Conventional medical wisdom suggested that bed rest and inactivity were the most effective way to recuperate, but now with thousands of post-operative patients in full view, it became painfully clear that the patients who did the best were the ones that got up and returned to regular physical activity as quickly as possible.

Following this realization, the University of Pennsylvania created (in the late 1800’s) an orthopedic gymnasium for “the development of muscular power with apparatus for both mechanical and hot air massage, gymnastics and Swedish movement.”

A young Canadian gymnast trained in Orthopedic Surgery, Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie, was recruited to U. Penn to develop a new field in medicine: “Physical Training.” Dr. McKenzie created a medical specialty called “Physical Therapy” and he was the first self-proclaimed “Physical Therapist.” He wrote a seminal book on the subject called “Reclaiming the Maimed” (1918) and continued to practice orthopedic surgery until his death in 1938.

Other major medical institutions followed U. Penn’s lead, creating “Medicomechanical Departments” at Mass General and the Mayo Clinic. Technicians were trained to assist in helping post-operative patients to become active and reclaim their range of motion – these technicians were known as “physiotherapists” and formed the first physiotherapy training program at the Mayo Clinic in 1918.

World War I (1914-1918) resulted in millions of additional amputations, thus flooding the health system with disabled veterans. In response, the army created two medical divisions: The division of orthopedic surgery and the division of physical reconstruction. By 1919, 45 hospitals had physiotherapy facilities, treating hundreds of thousands of war veterans.

And then there was polio. Suddenly a viral illness created a whole new wave of disabled individuals, further stimulating the need for orthotics (leg braces and such) and rehabilitative programs.

World War II (1940-1945) resulted in yet another influx of disabled veterans. All the while the medical community was developing innovative programs to maximize veterans’ functionality and integration into society and the work place through the burgeoning field of Physical Medicine & Rehabiltiation.

Key players in the development of the specialty:

Dr. Frank Krusen developed the first physical medicine training program at the Mayo Clinic in 1935 and the “Society of Physical Therapy Physicians” (now the American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation) in 1938. He coined the term “physiatrist” to describe the physicians who specialized in physical modalities for rehabilitating patients.

Dr. Howard Rusk founded the Institute for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in 1950 at NYU.  Excellent research in the field ensued.

Dr. Henry Kessler founded the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, in New Jersey, 1949.  More medical research was developed.

Mary E. Switzer successfully lobbied for the enactment of Public Law 565 which mandated that government funds be channeled towards rehabilitation facilities and programs for the disabled.

What’s in a name?

So as you can see, there is some good reason to be confused about the modern specialty of PM&R. It has undergone several name changes, molded by historical circumstance. Today, physiotherapists (they still go by that name in Canada) or physical therapy technicians have become a well known and respected profession: Physical Therapy.

Physicians who specialize in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation are called rehabilitation medicine specialists or “rehab docs” or “physiatrists.”

-See Next Post for the rest of the story -
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “What the heck is a "rehab doc?" Part 1”

  1. wellth says:

    Thank you for the history lesson!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I know very well what a rehab doc does, as both my mother and myself had to avail ourselves of medical rehab after surgery. This place and the doctors, therapist both physical and occupational and social workers made the difference in the speed in which I was able to go back to work and my mother to go back to living alone. My “fondest” memories is of how to get in to a car and  how to open a can using one hand. It was comforting to know all this ws being done under the guidance of a doctor who was “on” the premises and one whom we saw regularly about our progress.


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