How much difference do those 3 little letters make?
Every career has its highlights, and Physical Therapy is no exception. Your first job, a big promotion, landing your dream position, and all the major and minor accomplishments along the way. I am fortunate to have spent 30+ years in a field that I love, doing work that I am proud of, and changing the lives of countless people in both big and small ways. That should be enough, right? It turns out that one of my biggest career highlights happened in 2020; I became Board-Certified in Orthopedics. This is my OCS experience.
As a Physical Therapist, I am from an earlier generation of clinicians that didn’t need a doctorate or even a master’s degree to practice. Back then, we graduated without the kinds of student loan payments that currently plague newer clinicians. Being young, we had to grind it out to navigate and pave our way through the profession. Even just gaining the respect of other medical professionals such as physicians was challenging.
Knowing our first job wasn’t likely our dream job, we expected to pay our dues. First of all, rather than starting in a specialty clinic, as many new grads do today, most of us took jobs providing a wide range of experience. I believe this led to more well-rounded clinicians. This was beneficial for when we eventually did choose to specialize. Secondly, therapists knew it was important to take a lot of continuing education to advance our skills. We knew that what we learned in school and during our clinicals was only scratching the surface. There was a lot more to learn out there!
A changed Physical Therapy profession
The PT profession has changed a lot since then and is hardly recognizable from those early days. Fortunately, Physical Therapists have earned a level of independence and respect that would have been hard to imagine. Requiring doctorate level education has no doubt advanced the field. For us non-doctorate clinicians, however, it can feel like we’re being left behind. Having a lot of experience is suddenly equated with being a “dinosaur,” “complacent,” or the dreaded “old-school.” You can imagine the frustration, especially considering that I’ve worked hard to stay updated with evidence-informed practice. Unfortunately, I felt like I had nothing to show for it.
Physical therapy is a profession that lends itself to life-long learning. Years ago, I made the conscious decision that instead of investing in a transitional DPT, it would be better to spend my money and time on advanced continuing education to progress my skills and knowledge base in orthopedics and sports medicine. It was the right decision for me, and I have no regrets. Medicine and health care are continually evolving, and it’s my responsibility as a professional to keep up with the changing times. Gone are the days that all of our patients receive hot packs, ultrasound, and massage (thankfully!).
For us non-doctorate clinicians, however, it can feel like we’re being left behind. Having a lot of experience is suddenly equated with being a “dinosaur,” “complacent,” and the dreaded “old-school.”
I had tossed around the idea of taking the OCS Physical Therapy exam for a long time. The cost and time involved were barriers, and I put it off for many years. In 2019, the organization I work for announced a specialty program that interested me. Part of the pathway to being involved was having an OCS or SCS. I decided that 2020 would be the year to dive in and take the exam.
Let the panic begin!
After I registered for the test, panic, and intimidation quickly followed. I was putting myself in a vulnerable position, way outside of my comfort zone. First of all, I worked with Physical Therapy orthopedic residents that rattled off red flags and special test specificity numbers like the ABC’s. Secondly, just putting together the material to study was challenging, not to mention the actual studying part!
I organized my material and planned out my strategy with the Medbridge OCS Physical Therapy prep course. At that point, I had 6 months or so to study. In some ways, it felt like forever, and in other ways, it felt like not nearly enough time. Had I made a horrible mistake? Trying to pass an advanced certification exam 30+ years out of school was overwhelming. I set my fears aside and powered through. I gave up many hours of free time to study. Luckily, it was winter in Wisconsin, and finding a diversion from the weather is always a bonus!
Had I made a horrible mistake? Trying to pass an advanced certification exam 30+ years out of school was overwhelming.
In the months that ensued, I read JOSPT articles, watched MedBridge videos, made and took practice tests (some of which led to the creation of this website ), learned the CPG’s like the back of my hand, and even revisited the intricacies of the brachial plexus. As I got closer to the end, I knew that I would be a better therapist for the experience, even if I didn’t pass.
As ready as I’ll ever be
By the time the test day arrived, March 9, 2020, I was “as ready as I’ll ever be.” I knew that I was prepared; we would soon see if it was enough. The test was tough. I wasn’t confident in whether I had passed or not. While I don’t remember the questions exactly, I knew that there were many toss-ups. In the end, I hoped I had “squeaked by,” so to speak.
At that point, all I could do was wait. The worst part about the OCS Physical Therapy exam is that I wouldn’t find out the results until the end of June, almost 3 months after taking the test. The global pandemic shifted my focus at that point, with COVID-19 becoming a household word the same week I took the test. The OCS waiting game took a backseat to world health issues.
The day that we were to be informed about our test results had arrived. It was a busy workday, and I had forgotten it was the deadline. That night, I saw another therapist had posted on social media that she had passed. Feverishly, I went through email, spam folders, and the like but had not received a notification. Needless to say, I was crushed.
That night, I went to bed, feeling depressed, and defeated. I honestly don’t even know how I managed to fall asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at my phone. There was an email from the APTA specialist certification board that my test results were available. Of course, it involved cutting and pasting registration and ID numbers into another website, and honestly, my hand was shaking so badly I could hardly do it. I’m pretty sure it took me 3 times to get the numbers right!
Flurry of emotions
I finally saw my results. I had passed the test with room to spare. My hands were still shaking; I woke up my husband and started to sob. All of the preparation, uncertainty, and anxiety had come to a peak at that moment. In the end, I had earned a distinction in my field that I could be proud of, that only a small percentage of therapists had earned. It wasn’t just a drop in the bucket; it involved lots of hard work and sacrifice.
I’m generally not a fan of initials and accolades. On a personal level, though, because I don’t have the DPT after my name, being able to use OCS is all the more meaningful. My OCS experience may not have been a traditional one, but I’m certain that I am stronger for it personally and professionally.
I’ll continue to strive to be the best Physical Therapist I can be and continue to advance my skills and knowledge. Getting my OCS is not the end game; it’s only the beginning. There is a lot more learning to be done and patients to help. I hope to have many more years doing the job that I love. I only ask that you please don’t call me “old-school”!