Podiatrist vs Orthopaedic Surgeon?

We are often asked what is the difference between a podiatrist and an Orthopedic surgeon and when is it a wiser choice to see an Orthopedic surgeon. So we thought we would dedicate this month’s blog to addressing this very important question.

The biggest differences:

An Orthopaedic surgeon is a Doctor of Medicine, who graduates from Medical School.
A podiatrist does not graduate from Medical School but rather podiatry school and is not a Doctor of Medicine.

An Orthopaedic surgeon has a global understanding of a patient’s musculoskeletal health and a podiatrist addresses primarily localized foot and ankle problems.

A podiatrist is a doctor of “podiatric” medicine (DPM) and is also referred to as a podiatric physician or surgeon. They are qualified to diagnose and treat certain conditions of the foot, ankle, and related structures of the leg.

Podiatrists complete four years of training in a podiatric school and variable amounts of hospital residency training.
Podiatrists may be eligible for board certification after advanced training, clinical experience and testing; the certifying bodies for a podiatrist are the American Board of Podiatric Medicine and the American Board of Podiatric Surgery.

These governing bodies are not certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties, which is the umbrella organization for certifying medical specialty boards such as Surgery, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology, or Psychiatry and Neurology.

While some believe that a podiatrist is most qualified to care for injuries and conditions of the foot, as it is their only focus, they may overlook the importance of the patient’s health in general as well as the role that the broader musculoskeletal system plays in most foot and ankle problems.

While, many podiatrists are well trained and knowledgeable, the care of these problems are often better suited to a Doctor of Medicine, namely, an Orthopedic surgeon, certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (ABOS) with special interest in the foot and ankle, as indicated by membership in the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society (AOFAS).

An Orthopedic surgeon is a Doctor of Medicine who graduates from college and then four years of medical school obtaining a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. This education is followed by no less than five years in an Orthopedic surgical residency in an academic hospital program and most commonly one or more fellowship years additionally. Board certification is achieved by meeting strict standards and passing an examination established by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. Subspecialty certification may also be obtained.

Areas of specialization may include Orthopedic Sports Medicine, and Surgery of the Hand.
Orthopedic surgeons are members, or invited “fellows,” of prestigious professional orthopedic organizations such as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the American College of Surgeons (ACS).

Depending on areas of particular interest, other such organizations in which they hold membership may also include the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society (AOFAS), the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), the Arthroscopy Association of North America (AANA), and the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH).
General Orthopedic surgeons are qualified to work within any of the specialized areas identified above – though remain globally focused on the overall musculoskeletal system and the impact an injury or condition may have overall.

This is important as many of today’s chronic diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis, are manifestations of systemic disease and can have a devastating impact on the musculoskeletal system – though present initially in a particular limb. If the broader damage is not recognized and only the injury or condition presenting a specific limb is treated, other problems are inevitable.

While a podiatrist may effectively “manage” certain localized conditions of the foot such as callosities, diseases of the nail, and diabetic foot ulcerations, an Orthopedic surgeon is trained to identify and correct (both non surgically and surgically when indicated) hard to detect load pressure points, deformities, and stress and fragility fractures in the lower extremity before it turns into crisis management and limb salvage.

The ability to identify musculoskeletal problems early and “proactively” address them can make the difference in not only quality of life but extension of life.