What Is the Difference Between a Podiatrist & Orthopedist?

by Beth Greenwood, Demand Media
    Podiatrists and orthopedists work on the lower legs and feet.

    Podiatrists and orthopedists work on the lower legs and feet.

    Although both podiatrists and orthopedists work with the musculoskeletal system, there are significant differences between the two. For example, orthopedists -- more commonly called orthopedic surgeons or orthopods -- and podiatrists have different medical degrees. The orthopedic surgeon is an MD -- Doctor of Medicine -- or a DO -- Doctor of Osteopathy. Podiatrists, however, earn a DPM, or Doctor of Podiatric Medicine. Both podiatrists and orthopods must be licensed to practice in all states.

    Education

    Education is one of the most obvious differences between an orthopod and a podiatrist. Orthopods follow the traditional medical education path from college through medical school and residency. As surgeons, orthopods spend five years learning general surgery as well as their specialty, for a total of 13 or more years from college entry to completion of residency. Podiatrists are not required to have a bachelor’s degree -- although most do -- but need a minimum of three years of undergraduate education in specific subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics to attend a school of podiatry. The DPM is a four year degree and is followed by a residency which usually lasts three years, so a podiatrist might complete her educational requirements within 10 years.

    What They Do

    Both podiatrists and orthopods treat and perform surgery on the feet and lower legs, but a podiatrist’s practice is limited to that area, while an orthopod might also work on the hips, shoulders, elbows, hands or spine. An orthopod might treat conditions such as fractures, dislocations and torn ligaments in any joint. In addition, an orthopod might treat scoliosis, arthritis, osteoporosis or bone tumors. A podiatrist will focus on lower leg and foot problems such as treating calluses, removing bone spurs, providing diabetic foot care or performing bunionectomies. Either professional might prescribe braces and splints for the lower legs and feet or shoe inserts called orthotics.

    Specialization

    Because the orthopod has a much wider scope of practice than a podiatrist, many specialize in areas, such as spine surgery. Some orthopods limit their practice to the shoulders, hands, hips or feet. Others may perform a range of surgeries but specialize in pediatric care. Some orthopods choose specialties such as reconstructive surgery or sports medicine. Podiatrists could specialize in podiatric sports medicine, where they focus on treating and preventing foot and ankle injuries for athletes. Podiatrists might also specialize in pediatrics or might choose to perform only advanced surgical procedures such as foot and ankle reconstruction.

    Salaries

    Another significant difference between podiatrists and orthopods is found in salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that podiatrists earned an average annual salary of $133,870 in 2011, while surgeons earned $231,550. The BLS groups orthopods with all other surgeons except oral-maxillofacial surgeons and obstetrician-gynecologists, who are tracked separately, so salary data incorporates information from a broad range of surgical specialties. However, the American Medical Group Management Association reported that orthopedic surgeons earned $501,808 annually in 2011.

    About the Author

    Beth Greenwood is a registered nurse and writer. She served as a columnist for the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice on quality improvement and now contributes to various websites. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College and is a graduate of the California HealthCare Foundation Health Care Leadership Program.

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