According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 198,600 physical therapists in 2010.  Over the next 10 years, that number is expected to grow by 39%.  If you ask any physical therapist if he or she consider themselves to be a professional, the vast majority would likely answer in the affirmative.[1]  In my unofficial poll, a full 100% of the therapists polled considered physical therapists to be professionals.  (In the interest of full disclosure, my polling sample size was one).  Why does this matter?  Is it mere semantics?

From a legal perspective, there are distinct advantages to being a professional.  The first is a shorter statute of limitations for professional malpractice actions versus a regular negligence claim.  The professional statute is a full two years shorter.  Another advantage is that, generally speaking, in a professional malpractice lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove his or her case with the aid of expert testimony.  In the case of a physical therapist being sued, this would generally require another physical therapist to testify that the defendant therapist breached the standard of care owed to the patient.

The law on whether physical therapists are professionals is unsettled in Nebraska.  However, the Nebraska Supreme Court will soon hear oral argument on whether physical therapists are professionals.  There are a number of factors a court will consider in evaluating whether an occupation rises to the level of a professional.  These include:

– whether the occupation is subject to an ethical code;

– whether there is a disciplinary system for the occupation;

– whether the professionals regularly supplement their education; and,

– whether the occupation is licensed.

See Jorgensen v. State Nat. Bank & Trust Co., 255 Neb. 241, 246-47, 583 N.W.2d 331, 335 (1998).

In Nebraska, the Physical Therapy Practice Act (“the Act”) expressly acknowledges the expertise of physical therapists.  The Act requires a physical therapist to “provide all therapeutic interventions that require the expertise of a physical therapist,” to determine the appropriate use of physical therapist assistants or aides, to provide an initial evaluation and documentation of the evaluation, and to be responsible for managing all aspects of physical therapy services provided to the patients.”

Stay tuned in the next few months to see if the Nebraska Supreme Court agrees with the results of our unofficial poll.