A podiatrist is a foot doctor who practices podiatric medicine, which is a branch of science devoted to the diagnosis, treatment and study of medical disorders of the foot, ankle, lower leg and lower back. In the U.S. and Canada, as well as countries such as Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K., Australia and Singapore, podiatry is practiced as a specialty. In some countries the foot doctor is known as a chiropodist or podologist.
Specialized foot care is a profession that dates back to ancient Egypt, seen through tomb carvings. Tradition links Hippocrates' development of the scalpel as a consequence of his desire to remove corns and calluses from his patients' feet. Throughout history kings and presidents alike have used the services of foot doctors to literally keep them up and working on their feet. Some have viewed podiatrists as not being "real" doctors because they treat seemingly minor ailments like bunions. In truth, however, foot care is recognized around the world as an essential part of overall good health.
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The feet-related duties of a podiatrist include performing a thorough assessment exam, and listening to patient concerns regarding their feet and lower legs. A diagnosis is made by performing a physical exam, by using laboratory tests such as blood tests or urinalysis, with x-rays, and through other methods. The podiatrist treats common foot troubles such as bunions, as well as complex foot and ankle surgeries such as the removal of bone spurs. They also prescribe medications and provide follow-up care instructions and advice. Podiatrists will also prescribe medical devices such as orthotics and arch supports in order to improve mobility and treat lower leg ailments and pain.
Some common foot and lower leg ailments treated by a podiatrist:
cysts and tumors
warts, corns, calluses
sprains and fractures
skin disorders like plantar warts
Foot deformities, either birth defects like clubfoot, or problems caused by neglect or damage, are also treated by a foot doctor, along with any feet issues causing abnormal posture or gait. Many times larger health problems, such as arthritis or diabetes, are often diagnosed through symptoms first seen in the feet. Diabetic neuropathy is a condition in which cuts or sores on the feet are not felt and can become infected or muscle damage occurs. In these cases the podiatrist will refer patients to other physicians or specialists.
There are a number of subspecialties in the field of podiatry. Podiatric sports medicine treats foot and ankle injuries commonly occurring among athletes. Pediatric care podiatrists treat children, including those with congenital foot defects. Advanced surgical podiatrists focus on advanced surgical techniques, including foot and ankle reconstruction after injury. There are also specialties in geriatrics, dermatology, orthopedics, vascular medicine, diabetes and other areas.
In the U.S. and Canada podiatrists must earn the four-year Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) degree and complete medical and surgical residency. This involves pre-professional college or a three- or four-year bachelor degree, with courses in biology, chemistry, physics, English, and math. An MCAT exam is usually required for admission to the DPM program. The first part of the DPM degree includes instruction and laboratory work in the sciences: anatomy, pathology, microbiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, and physiology. The second part is primarily clinical practice and practical experience, including surgery. In total the educational component takes anywhere from eight to eleven years to complete. There are nine colleges in the U.S. and one in Canada offering the DPM.
State licensing is also required, and in many parts of Canada the profession is governed by legislation. Licenses must be renewed periodically and continuing education is a requirement.
Some important characteristics needed to be a foot doctor:
interest in working with people and good interpersonal skills
aptitude for science
critical thinking skills
academic ability and ambition
comfort with instruments and precision equipment
Podiatrists are expected to stay current with advances in podiatric medicine, reading medical journals and attending conferences. Some podiatrists earn a specialty designation and may become recognized experts in a particular area of foot treatments or ailments.
Most podiatrists are self-employed in general practice and can set their own work hours. Others work as part of group practice in a clinic or in a hospital. For patient convenience some extended hours may be involved, but standard office hours are generally followed. Podiatrists can work in health maintenance organizations, for the government or the military, and at universities or academic science and research centers.
Part of the job involves standing while conducting examinations, but there is also a fair amount of desk work and paperwork to be completed. If a podiatrist owns his or her own practice, a number of business-related activities are also required, including hiring employees, managing inventory, and dealing with medical insurance providers. Many opportunities exist for those interested in relocating, since podiatry is a recognized profession in many countries around the world.
The specialty of podiatry is considered one of the highest-paying in the U.S. During 2010, the median pay for podiatrists was $56 an hour, or $118,000 annually. In Canada the mean wage in 2011 was $40 an hour. Earnings vary, however, based on personal ability and reputation, years of experience, and efficiency of practice.