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The History of Physical Therapy Practice in the United States

Moffat, Marilyn, PT, PhD, CSCS, FAPTA

Journal of Physical Therapy Education: December 2003 - Volume 17 - Issue 3 - p 15–25
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Physical therapy practice in the United States evolved around two major historical events: the poliomyelitis epidemics of the 1800s through the 1950s and the effects of the ravages of several wars. Marguerite Sanderson and Mary McMillan were the first two individuals involved in the training of “reconstruction aides” responsible for caring for those individuals wounded in World War I.

Poliomyelitis raged throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s. The primary modes of treatment were isolation, immobilization, splinting, bed rest, and later surgery. During World War II, drastic improvements in medical management and surgical techniques led to increasing numbers of survivors with disabling war wounds. In 1940, Sister Elizabeth Kenny brought her treatment techniques for the management of patients with poliomyelitis to the United States.

The passage of the Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946, the “Hill Burton Act,” led to an increase in hospital-based practice for physical therapists. The Korean War again challenged physical therapists with the treatment of those with disabilities related to war wounds. The Salk vaccine virtually eradicated poliomyelitis in the United States by 1961. The role of the physical therapist progressed increasingly in the 1950s from that of a technician to a professional practitioner. Amendments to the Social Security Act (SSA) in 1967 added a definition of “outpatient physical therapy services.” Increasing numbers of states enacted such practice acts during the 1950s and 1960s. The practice of physical therapy for patients with neuromuscular disorders dramatically changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, cardiopulmonary physical therapist practice expanded with increasing chest physical therapy programs for pre- and postoperative patients. With the expansion of joint replacements, new avenues for orthopedic physical therapist practice emerged. The 1970s and 1980s saw the increased opportunities for practice with the implementation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules and regulations, the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), and the AIDS epidemic. Physical therapists began providing services in the areas of women's health, oncology, and hand rehabilitation. Specialty certification was developed.

In the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research led to new opportunities for practice. Physical therapists were faced with the challenges of increasing governmental cost savings, decreasing reimbursement, increasing governmental regulations, the influences of the insurance industry and corporate America, and the sudden personnel supply exceeding demand for services.

In the new millennium, the American Physical Therapy. Association developed the Guide to Physical Therapist Practice, the CD-ROM version of the Guide, and the “Hooked-on-Evidence” project. Most states had some form of direct access, and bills were introduced on Capitol Hill to allow Medicare patients direct access to physical therapist services.

Marilyn Moffat is professor of physical therapy, New York University, 380 Second Ave, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10010, and a private practitioner.

Copyright2003 (C) Academy of Physical Therapy Education, APTA
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