Is the OCS worth it for Physical Therapists?

Study for the OCS using a laptop computer

Is the OCS worth it considering the time and financial costs involved?

Many Physical Therapists are asking that same question

I struggled for years trying to decide whether I should take the OCS exam. In many ways, I felt like I had already proven myself. I had been an orthopedic and sports Physical Therapist for most of my career, which was already over 25 years long. Since it was a priority for me to remain current professionally, I took more continuing education than was required for my license, or that my employer reimbursed for. Over the years, that was a considerable investment. I was also a career-long member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) as well as the Orthopedic specialty section. 

Having an OCS was a desirable distinction, and not an easy one to achieve. People that I admired the most in my field were board-certified. Being from an earlier generation of therapists, it was a way to set myself apart, especially from a new breed of doctorally prepared clinicians.

Plus, all I had to do was pass a test.

However, I didn’t commit to taking the exam until I had a job opportunity that the OCS would help me qualify for. That was what made the OCS worth it to me. So, I finally took the exam in 2020 and passed.

OCS Physical Therapy certificate

Physical Therapy by the numbers in the US

There are 249,079 Physical Therapists in the United States, a number posted by Data, USA, in 2018. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS) states that in 2020, there are 30,041 Physical Therapists with advanced board-certification, and 17,318 of these specialists are OCS certified. These numbers roughly show that 12% of all PT’s have advanced certification, and 6% have their OCS. You can see that only a small percentage of all therapists have earned advanced board-certification, including the OCS. Having an OCS does put a PT in a specialized club among all therapists.

Cost of the OCS

In 2024, the exam dates will be February 28 – March 20. Dates and deadlines for applications can be found here. The initial application review fee is $535 for APTA members and $880 for non-APTA members, however, these fees increase significantly after July 31st for the ortho exam. Once your application is reviewed, and you are approved to sit for the exam, The exam fee is $810 for APTA members, and $1535 for non-APTA members, and the deadline is November 30th. In this case, it definitely pays to be an APTA member. Be sure to check for employer discounts as well! 

Logo of the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists

How do employers feel about the OCS?

The ABPTS website has an informative section about employers’ views of specialty certification from a survey they issued in 2017. These findings are not specific to the OCS, but to advanced board-certification in general:

  • Approximately half of the employers use board-certification as a marketing tool and feel that it is valuable for attracting patients.
  • 43% give priority in hiring therapists with specialty certification.
  • 39% say that a salary increase would be considered for a therapist with advanced board-certification. This was most common in private practices.
  • 43% say that they offer non-financial rewards for therapists with advanced board-certification. This could be a title change or increased responsibility. 35% said that these therapists were more likely to take on leadership and management roles and placed a higher emphasis on marketing themselves.
  • More than half felt that clinical outcomes were better in therapists with advanced board-certification, and 45% said specialists routinely manage patients with more complex conditions.
  • 37% felt that having advanced certification led to more referrals from other professionals.

So, is the OCS worth it?

Bottom line, there are significant advantages to having an OCS, especially from a career standpoint. While you may not get a huge raise immediately, having advanced board-certification will likely open doors either at your current job or in a future position. For me, it allowed me to be part of a specialty team, treating more of the types of patients I enjoyed working with. I have also been able to use my OCS as a marketing tool as I’ve recently opened Elite Bodyworks, a cash-pay practice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, the financial and time costs are high. Preparing involves considerable work. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.

Will it make you a better Physical Therapist? I argue that it will. The preparation involved helped me look at the entire field of orthopedic Physical Therapy with a more critical eye. It’s one piece of the puzzle in the journey to become an expert clinician. It’s a piece that I am proud of, even 30 years into my career.

Use the links below to help in your OCS journey

Picture of Carol Grgic

Carol Grgic

Carol Grgic, PT, OCS, CSCS is a Physical Therapist practicing in Milwaukee, WI, and is the owner of Elite Bodyworks, a self-pay Physical Therapy clinic. She is the creator of and enjoys blogging about Physical Therapy related topics.

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