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What Is a Physiatrist?

As a doctor, when your favorite patients are ballroom dancers, stroke victims, and amputees, you’re most likely a physiatrist.

Physiatrists (fizz-ee-at'-trists) are physicians who specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation (or, as they put it, in PM&R). They work to prevent, diagnose, and nonsurgically treat disorders associated with disability. Beverly Roberts-Atwater, wife of IUP’s president, Tony Atwater, is a physiatrist working to improve the quality of life for her patients.


As a physiatrist, Beverly Roberts-Atwater focuses on the integration of nerve, muscle, and bone. She also emphasizes the importance of positive outlooks, as she explains to Catherine Prato.

Working in physical medicine involves the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders with the use of modalities, medication, procedures, and exercise. Rehabilitation is the process of helping the person with disabilities to maximize the ability to function again with the use of equipment and assistive devices, such as splints, canes, walkers, wheelchairs, etc. Physiatrists know exactly which device works for which injury, enabling them to help the patient as quickly as possible.

Physiatrists are trained to work with all physical rehabilitation patients and to focus on the integration between nerve, muscle, and bone and how they work together in the human body. The conditions treated by physiatry include amputations, arthritis, brain injuries, burns, cancer, cardiac disorders, orthopaedic injuries, pain disorders, stroke, spinal cord, and trauma. With additional training, physiatrists may perform other procedures such as spinal nerve blocks, Botox treatment, and acupuncture.

Physiatry utilizes a team to help patients achieve quality of life. At the outset of rehabilitation, the physiatrist may give appropriate orders to the therapist before the treatment starts. It may take two or three weeks until patients can be medically stabilized, after which they are ready for the physiatrist.

Physiatrists always try to encourage patients to think positively. Roberts-Atwater believes that physiatrists must “always have a positive outlook.”

PM&R began when Howard Rusk founded rehabilitation medicine after World War II. Later, Frank Krusen coined the term “physiatry” and developed the first residency program at the Mayo Clinic. Physiatry was initially recognized as a specialty in 1939 and became American Board established in 1947.

Physiatrists need the proper schooling to work in their field of medicine. It starts with an undergraduate degree followed by four years of medical school, after which a one-year internal medicine internship is completed. An additional three years are spent working in physical medicine and rehab, where diseases and disorders are studied. Roberts-Atwater found her twelve years of higher education to be “well worth it” in the long run.

What is Roberts-Atwater’s favorite part of being a physiatrist? “It’s cool,” she said. Her mantra is “We are living longer, [and] there is no reason why we shouldn’t be functioning longer.”

Roberts-Atwater is one of only two physiatrists in the Indiana, Pa., area. There are six thousand physiatrists around the country, including Patrick Patteson Carone ’90, who works in North Carolina.

“The clinical aspect of physiatry that I’m mostly involved with now,” Carone said, “is procedural pain management. As CEO of Carolina Rehabilitation and Surgical Associates, I’m also involved in the operational and developmental aspects of the business of running the practice.”

Stephanie Mlot is a sophomore Journalism major at IUP from Ellicott City, Md.