Unique Career Highlights: US Public Health Service
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
Are you looking for more than just your average physical therapy career?
Are you passionate about public service?
Are you interested in a career with ample opportunities for advancement and diversification?
Working as a therapist in the US Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps is a unique opportunity to grow in your career, while serving your country. Despite the lack of publicity, being an officer with the USPHS is an exceedingly rewarding career path on multiple levels.
According to its website: "The Commissioned Corps traces its beginnings back to the US Marine Hospital Service protecting against the spread of disease from sailors returning from foreign ports and maintaining the health of immigrants entering the country. Currently, Commissioned Corps officers are involved in health care delivery to underserved and vulnerable populations, disease control and prevention, biomedical research, food and drug regulation, mental health and drug abuse services, and response efforts for natural and man-made disasters as an essential component of the largest public health program in the world."
Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Selena Bobula, PT, DPT, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and has been practicing for 8 years. Her first encounter with physical therapy was in high school after tearing her ACL, and this experience led to her future career.
Now, as a commissioned officer in USPHS Bobula works at Fort Carson, Colorado, in the Warrior Recovery Center/Evan Army Community Hospital.
Bobula first heard about USPHS while on a traumatic brain injury rotation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She thought it seemed like a great opportunity to try a variety of jobs in physical therapy, to travel, have upward mobility, and to serve as a federal employee with all of the perks that it entails.
Below is an interview with Bobula who shares her USPHS experiences and her professional development journey.
What is a physical therapist's (PT's) role within the Commissioned Corps?
A PT in USPHS can work for a number of agencies, although most clinical PTs work with the Indian Health Service (IHS) or Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Depending on the clinical site, you may work purely in outpatient, inpatient, or a combination of both. Most sites have an orthopedic need, although in my experience working in IHS the needs are so great for all types of PTs that you can be a neurology, geriatric, pediatrics, wound, EMG, women's health, cardiopulmonary, or any type of specialist. Meanwhile, on a deployment team PTs can function in administrative/leadership roles, such as the logistics or operations chief, or PTs can be clinical and assist with ADLs, and sometimes wound care.
What, if anything, makes working for USPHS different than working for a private practice or hospital system?
I have always worked in some sort of federal hospital system and I like having a variety of specialists available for consultation, as I prefer a team approach versus silo approach to optimal patient care. I really like being a commissioned officer because of the wide variety of opportunities available (eg, working for the FDA, headquarters, USDA, DOD, IHS, BOP, CDC) as well as the really nice benefits (ie, free health care for me and my family, 30-days of leave per year, federal holidays, a pension retirement with 20 years of service, and upward mobility that otherwise is not really available in other health care systems). Lastly, the great freedom of being a federal PT is really nice, allowing us to order imaging, be a valued member of the health care team, and not worry about insurance limitations (unless ordering equipment). We can see someone as much or little as deemed appropriate without letters of justification, and can practice to the limits of our scope of practice.
What are the top 3 reasons you would recommend a career with USPHS to a new grad?
First, benefits: retirement with a pension, free health care for you and your family, 30+ days of leave per year, 12 weeks of maternity leave, unlimited sick leave, and more. The sooner that you get in the sooner that you can retire—and you've got to work somewhere. Why not serve your country and be well reimbursed for it? The income is significantly higher than average PT incomes once you make O-4, for which you are probably eligible in 3-4 years.
Second, the wide scope of practice and interesting opportunities: Keep up your generalist skills that you learned as a new graduate and decide the type of physical therapist specialty you want to practice. This is especially true with IHS. I got to run a wheelchair clinic, start a falls clinic, start vestibular rehab services, start concussion services, lead an area-wide neurology special interest group, and earn my board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy by filling a gap in patient care that I was interested in. As for other interesting opportunities with USPHS, I have participated in providing free health care to a rural population in Tennessee, and responded to Hurricane Florence providing medical care to evacuees.
And third, loan repayment: If you work with IHS, loan repayment is an option as a civilian. Plus, students who are in the BOP Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program receive a stipend while in school, and those years also count toward your retirement. The IHS Loan Repayment program was instrumental for me in paying off more than $90k in less than 5 years, while working in a very friendly environment and a BEAUTIFUL area of the country I had never visited.
Do USPHS officers get deployed in a similar way as the military?
Not quite. We respond to public health emergencies and typically only deploy for a few weeks at a time. Some recent examples include setting up and running a medical shelter to support evacuees from a hurricane or flooding, providing health care services to unaccompanied children crossing the border, mental health teams responding to school shootings, and responding to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, aiding in controlling the epidemic and running a strict medical facility to ensure non–cross-contamination. I was fortunate enough to finally deploy for 2 weeks to assist in a medical shelter for evacuees from Hurricane Florence and really loved the experience.
If a student wants to complete a clinical rotation with USPHS, what should they do?
Contact me at Selena.firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help find contacts for the clinical experience where you may be interested in doing a rotation.
Bobula loves her job and in the near future sees herself as chief of a small clinic, hopefully closer to the midwest. Being a USPHS commissioned officer is a unique and diverse career opportunity where you will promote, protect, and advance the health and safety of our nation. You can find more information about jobs and applications on the website, but first she recommends paying attention in class, especially neuroanatomy, and know that "it depends" is really the answer.
Grace Couture, SPT, and LCDR Selena Bobula, PT, DPT, Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Neurologic and Orthopaedic Physical Therapy