Not a Doctor

“So, what is it that you do, actually?”

“I’ve never heard of that!”

“So like, bionic arms and stuff, right?”

“Oh, like foot orthotics!”

I love the challenge of trying to explain to people what a prosthetist or orthotist is. Since we are such a small field, it’s very rare that someone will recognize or understand what I do! Part of a big, huge, lofty goal of mine is to increase the general public’s knowledge and understanding about the field of prosthetics and orthotics – and this blog is my first step. So again, thank you for being part of my journey!

We actually had to memorize the definition of an orthotist for one of our exams (hey, thanks Sally!), so I’m gonna drop the textbook definition before we get started. An orthotist is a person who, having completed an approved course of education and training, is authorized by an appropriate national authority to design, measure, and fit an orthosis. And similarly for a prosthetist, who is able to design, measure, and fit a prosthesis.

So even though I’m attending a medical school, I will not be a doctor when I graduate (though we do wear white coats occasionally – don’t let it fool you!)


My first fabrication project partner with our thoracic-lumbar-sacral orthoses for pediatric patients! We wear our white coats to see our patient models to help us get in a professional mindset.

I’ll have a Master of Science degree in Orthotics and Prosthetics, and once I sit for (and pass!) my board exams, I will be a certified prosthetist/orthotist. I’ll be a practitioner, but not a doctor.

As a prosthetic and orthotic clinician, I’ll be working in a team of healthcare professionals. This is one of the things I love about O&P – in order to help our patients achieve success, specialists in different areas must work together. A physician is often the head of the team – they are responsible for overseeing the entire rehabilitation process. The physician will write a prescription for an orthosis or prosthesis – and that’s where I come in! The patient may also receive care from a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, a psychologist, a neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a vascular surgeon, and more. Similar to positions on a playing field, each member of the team is responsible for their own specialty.

One of our professors like to say that O&P is the perfect marriage of people and stuff. This is why working as an engineer right out of undergrad just wasn’t going to work for me. I need to help people, and in this field, I get to work with people, and I get to make the “stuff” that will improve their lives, whether that is an orthosis or a prosthesis. As a prosthetist/orthotist, my responsibility and my specialty on the healthcare team is the patient and the “stuff” we provide to them. It’s super crucial to me, however, that the patient comes first – before the cool stuff.

Taking time to understand the patient as a person, not just the device they’re receiving, actually makes me a better clinician. Once I understand the person sitting in front of me, I can design the device just for them. How cool is that?!

If I know that my patient likes to golf on the weekends, I can ensure that the prosthetic foot I provide will allow for the rotation that comes with swinging a golf club. If I know that my patient wears dress shoes with a one-inch heel to work every day, I can ensure I provide an ankle-foot orthosis that functions in accordance with that heel height.

So even though I’m not a doctor, and I cannot prescribe medications to manage my patient’s nerve pain, I still have an obligation to talk to them about it, to figure out how their prosthesis or orthosis may be affecting their pain, and to make the patient feel validated and heard. Often our patients are juggling so many different appointments and different providers; it’s easy for them to feel a little lost. I like knowing that by taking the time to get to know my patients, rather than just knowing the device I will provide to them, I can help them feel a little less lost, a little more found.

So I’m not a doctor, but I will be a healthcare provider, and I cannot wait to make a difference in my patient’s lives.

Stay tuned for more posts about what prostheses and orthoses actually are, and the magic that goes into designing them! Thanks for reading!

© Cara Yocum | Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes 2017


One thought on “Not a Doctor

  1. Pingback: Ready or Not, Here I Come | Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

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