How to Go to Podiatry School and Become a Podiatrist in the U.S.
A podiatrist specializes in treating health conditions such as fungal infections and circulatory problems that affect feet, ankles and lower legs
SOMEONE WHO IS interested in becoming a health care provider may want to consider becoming a podiatrist, a type of clinician who specializes in treating health conditions such as fungal infections and circulatory problems that affect feet, ankles and lower legs.
Podiatrists typically earn six-figure salaries, according to compensation statistics from the American Podiatric Medical Association. Those pay figures reveal that, in 2017, 57% of podiatrists had salaries between $100,000 and $250,000, and a quarter of podiatrists had salaries of $250,000 or higher.
Podiatrists say it’s possible to pursue this career path without working exceptionally long hours, making this one type of health care job that facilitates work-life balance.
Dr. Matthew Reiner, a fellowship-trained podiatrist and foot and ankle specialist in Ohio, says most podiatrists have predictable and consistent work schedules, since “there are only a few emergencies that need to be addressed.”
Although a podiatrist can expect a hefty paycheck and desirable hours, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to become one.
How Long It Takes to Become a Podiatrist and What’s Required to Practice
Podiatry is a career path that requires a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine degree from an accredited podiatry school, and earning this degree typically takes four years. In addition, most states require that podiatry school graduates spend time in a podiatry residency at an approved health care facility in order to be eligible for a license to practice podiatry independently. However, the mandatory length of time spent as a resident varies by state.
A typical podiatry medicine and surgery residency lasts for 36 months, meaning that completing the residency in its entirety is a three-year commitment. So, someone who plans to earn a DPM degree and finish a podiatry medicine and surgery residency can expect to spend seven years on his or her podiatry training after college.
Plus, in order to become a licensed U.S. podiatrist, it’s usually mandatory to pass at least some of the four components of the American Podiatric Medical Licensing Examination. Some states require passage of every component of the national test, and it may be mandatory to take a state podiatry licensing exam that is specific to the state where you intend to practice.
Dr. Michael J. Trepal – dean and vice president for academic affairs with the New York College of Podiatric Medicine – says many individuals elect to complete more than the standard amount of podiatry training, with some choosing to do a fourth year of podiatry residency or opting to pursue a post-residency fellowship.
Though it is technically feasible for someone to practice podiatry in certain U.S. states without having spent three years in residency, it is rare for someone to do this, and most aspiring podiatrists devote three years to podiatry residency training, Trepal says.
“All residency programs are a minimum of three years in length,” he wrote in an email. “So if someone were to leave the program early or were dismissed, they would not graduate. Now they could in some states qualify for a license, but could not become Board certified by one of the recognized Boards. In addition some hospitals require completion of a residency program for privileges. Some health insurance plans also consider this in selecting practitioners for their panels. So in essence one could theoretically practice without having completed a residency program, but it would be a very low level of practice. Very few go this route.”
Podiatrists are usually expected to receive continuing medical education throughout their careers in order to maintain their license to practice, Trepal says.
Podiatrists must be licensed, and they may choose to obtain board certification from a podiatry professional organization such as the American Board of Podiatric Medicine, the American Board of Multiple Specialties in Podiatry or the American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery to bolster their credentials.
“National podiatric specialty boards grant certification to qualified podiatrists who have completed the specified educational requirements and who successfully complete written and oral examinations,” Dr. Damian Roussel, a foot and ankle surgeon and podiatrist with the Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in Maryland, wrote in an email.
What It Takes to Get Into Podiatry School
In order to be eligible to enter podiatry school, an aspiring podiatrist must complete a minimum of either three years or 90 semester hours of undergraduate education, according to admissions requirements that the American Association of Colleges of Podiatric Medicine, or AACPM, lists on its website. Pre-podiatry undergraduate coursework must include courses in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and English, the AACPM website states.
More than 97% of students at podiatric med schools have a bachelor’s degree, and many already have some type of graduate degree, according to the AACPM website. The only standardized test that is usually necessary for entry to podiatry school is the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, the AACPM website states.
Podiatry programs are typically selective, though not quite as hard to get into as the most prestigious M.D. programs, Trepal says. “Admission to a college of Podiatric Medicine is indeed competitive, although not at the level of an Ivy League or top-tier Allopathic Medical School,” he wrote.
Roussel notes that podiatry school applicants need to demonstrate that they have the maturity necessary to become a health care provider. He adds that they also need impressive academic achievements in the sciences. “Good time management, problem-solving skills and a strong sense of inter- and intrapersonal communication skills are all attributes I would hope to see in a podiatry school candidate,” he adds. “Also, if the candidate has performed community service or good works, indicate that on the application.”
What Podiatry School Is Like
The curriculum of podiatry schools, which are sometimes referred to as podiatric medical schools, is similar to that of allopathic and osteopathic med schools. Like traditional med schools, podiatric med schools take four years to finish. They begin with preclinical science courses and conclude with clinical rotations.
During the science portion of the curriculum, students take classes in subjects like anatomy and pathology, whereas in the clinical portion they learn how to interact with, diagnose and care for patients, just as their peers in traditional medical schools do.
One key difference between what a student will learn in podiatric med school versus traditional med school is that podiatry school courses focus primarily on the lower body, whereas traditional med school classes focus on the entire body.
“Our education differs from other physicians mainly in our second two years of podiatry school where we shift our focus to the lower extremity pathologies and treatment,” Dr. Sophia Solomon, a board-certified podiatrist with Manhattan Foot Specialists in New York City, wrote in an email.
What Podiatrists Do and How to Decide Whether the Profession Is Right for You
Podiatrists have a lot of flexibility in how they choose to practice their profession, with some opting to exclusively work during traditional business hours and others electing to accept calls from emergency rooms, which can come at any time, says Dr. Bruce Pinker, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon in New York. Pinker has been practicing podiatry for almost two decades.
“One can handle traumatic injuries that require surgical repair, or one can only treat patients in a private office setting,” Pinker wrote in an email. “There is the option to offer aesthetic foot treatments which are elective, or perform routine services for patients on a regular basis.”
Pinker notes that podiatrists often collaborate with other health care providers to help diabetic patients prevent and manage foot infections. He adds that podiatrists can provide a variety of treatments, ranging from sports podiatry procedures to foot and ankle surgeries to pain mitigation therapies.
“One of the greatest benefits of being a podiatrist is being able to improve a patient’s life in just one visit,” he wrote. One of the hassles, Pinker says, is dealing with complex health insurance plans. However, health insurers typically cover podiatry services, Pinkers says, and that allows insured individuals with podiatric conditions to get the assistance they need from podiatrists.
Though a podiatrist focuses primarily on the lower extremities of the human body, he or she still needs to understand what is happening in the rest of the body in order to appreciate the impact of overall health conditions, Pinker told U.S. News in a phone interview.
Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between a podiatrist and a primary care health care provider “who may see anything and everything walking through the door,” Pinker says. He notes that podiatrists have a clearly defined area of expertise, since their job centers on solving problems within a specific region of the human body.
Because a significant proportion of the population struggles with foot problems and other issues with their lower extremities, a podiatry career often involves helping a broad spectrum of people, Pinker says. Podiatry patients vary widely, ranging from seniors who are struggling with aging-related ailments to active athletes who are recovering from sports injuries.
Dr. Yolanda Ragland, a podiatric reconstruction forefoot surgeon who regularly performs hammertoe and bunion surgeries, wrote in an email that one frustration of being a podiatrist is that some people do not understand that podiatry is a “medical art” that requires technical skill. Not everyone realizes that podiatrists can evaluate patients, prescribe medications and perform surgeries, says Ragland, the founder & CEO of Fix Your Feet, a podiatric practice with locations in New York and Maryland.
“Feet are the foundation of our bodies and podiatrists are the ones that help people get around on a daily basis,” she says. “We are trusted with the most critical part of one’s body, yet there is still a stigma that we are not real doctors.