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What Does a Clinical Physiologists Do?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A clinical physiologist is a medical professional who works alongside doctors to diagnose, treat, and anticipate a variety of health concerns and injuries. What a clinical physiologist does on a day-to-day basis is mostly a factor of his or her training, specialty, and job setting. All of them work directly with patients, however, treating, examining, and educating about certain conditions. The field is a large one, and there are many opportunities for diverse work.

Clinical physiologists are medical professionals who work closely with the science of the body, but they are not typically doctors or physicians. Rather than going to medical school, physiologists attend specialized degree programs, often at the master’s degree level. Most of the time, they specialize in one specific area. Sports physiology, neurophysiology, and respiratory physiology are a few of the many focus areas generally available.

Physiology, like most medical sciences, depends on extensive research. Some graduates will necessarily branch into research divisions, spending their days understanding the science behind improving outpatient procedures, developing new drugs for specific injuries or recurring illnesses, or working on improving prosthetic technology, to name a few. Students typically choose either clinical or research tracks in the early part of their physiologist training programs. A clinical physiologist will spend more time with patients than in the lab.

The designation “clinical” indicates that the graduate will be working alongside patients, providing active care. Many work on staff in hospitals, assessing the injuries and ailments of admitted patients and collaborating with doctors on care and treatment plans. They can be assigned to patients recovering from major accidents or illnesses, and often work as part of a patient’s medical team, helping them along the way to recovery. This kind of clinical physiologist works with a rotating group of patients, often seeing multiple people with various conditions in a single day. He or she will examine patients, study lab work, and assess conditions from various treatment perspectives.

Different jurisdictions have different licensing rules and practice restrictions on non-doctors like physiologists, but most are able to actively help with treatments. After the doctor has made a medical assessment and prescribed treatment plan, a physiologist is often the one to carry it out, or help the patient to understand how to carry it out for himself or herself. Most of the time, a physiologist is much more involved in recovery and rehabilitation than is the treating physician.

Clinical physiology is also in demand in the private sector, and many professionals work with private clinics and organizations to provide basic treatment services. Most privatized professionals work directly within their specialty, seeing only patients with particular conditions or medical needs. In neurological practices, much of the work involves studying slides and records of internal happenings. Likewise, physiologist jobs in sports medicine typically center on sports-related injuries and muscular strength. These professionals apply practical knowledge to educate potential patients about how to avoid injury, as well as evaluating injuries that have already occurred.

The specifics of what a clinical physiologist actually does is largely a function of his or her specialty, as well as his or her work set-up. There are many options when it comes to clinical physiologist careers. Just the same, all are similar when it comes to patient care, doctor interaction, and the hands-on application of scientific knowledge.

What Does a Clinical Physiologist Do?

A clinical physiologist works with physicians to provide patient care in various settings and specialties. These professionals are not doctors, but they do provide direct patient care. The daily tasks and responsibilities vary depending on the physiologist's level of education, specialty, and place of employment. Clinical physiologists may examine, treat, and educate patients about their medical conditions in any of the many branches of medicine, from general practice to specialties such as sports medicine, neuroscience, and respiratory health. Other non-clinical physiologists may choose the research field and work in a laboratory to develop new procedures, medications, or prosthetic technology.

Clinical Physiology in the Hospital Setting

While every state has its own rules about what a clinical physiologist can do, most allow these professionals to work directly with patients. One place where a clinical physiologist might work is a hospital. In this setting, the professional might assess injuries and illnesses and work with physicians on a plan for treating the patient.

A hospital-based clinical physiologist sees patients with various conditions, from major life-threatening illnesses and injuries to those recovering from routine surgeries and outpatient treatments. While the final say on the treatment plan lies with the physician, the clinical physiologist is often the one to implement the strategy or teach the patient how to implement it. These professionals often oversee the recovery and rehabilitation phase more directly than the physician.

Clinical Physiology in the Private Setting

Clinical physiologists work in clinics and other privately-operated settings to provide primary medical treatments. Most professionals who work in a private clinic work within a specialty seeing patients with a particular set of needs. Here are two examples:

  • Sports medicine clinical physiologists work with athletes and others with sports-related injuries and conditions. They also play a role in teaching athletes how to avoid injuries in the first place.
  • Neurology clinical physiologists may spend much of their time evaluating slides under a microscope and reading imaging studies and laboratory reports.
  • Exercise clinical physiologists work in gyms, healthcare facilities, and other settings where people seek effective fitness programs. They specialize in improving body function through the use of exercise. For example, an exercise clinical physiologist may develop a program for a client looking to improve the health of the heart and lungs, someone looking to gain muscle and lose fat, or a client seeking greater flexibility and endurance.

Clinical Physiology in the Government Setting

  • Clinical physiologists work in certain health-related branches of government. For example, the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute studies the function and malfunction of these vital organs. The organization uses clinical physiologists to develop new technology to identify and treat heart, lungs, and blood disorders.

What Do Clinical Physiologists Study?

Though clinical physiologists work directly with patients, they do not go to medical school. Instead, they attend master's level programs designed explicitly for clinical physiologists. Most clinical physiologists choose a specialty and pursue additional training for that field. All clinical physiologists, regardless of specialty, must examine and assess a patient, read and understand laboratory test results, and develop a treatment plan for different conditions.

Students in clinical physiology programs study a broad range of topics related to the human body during undergraduate and graduate studies, including nutrition, exercise science and testing, human performance, and business management. High-quality programs offer internships and other clinical experiences as well as research and laboratory opportunities to develop well-rounded medical professionals. Here are a few of the core competencies clinical physiologists should seek to master:

  • An understanding of the structures of the human body, how they work together, and how they impact each other
  • Knowledge of how the human body functions and maintains itself or fails to do so
  • Comprehension of how lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise affect the body's ability to function well
  • An ability to use the scientific method of inquiry and reasoning, analyze data, and draw conclusions

How Much Do Clinical Physiologists Make?

As of May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook reports a median pay of $50,280 per year for a clinical physiologist in the United States. However, salaries in some areas of the country are as high as $67,000 per year, and some specialties command higher wages than others. Those who are willing to seek additional training and develop new competencies can often command higher salaries. The outlook for people entering the field of clinical physiology is bright. The number of available jobs is expected to grow by 13% through 2030.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Glasis — On Feb 20, 2014

Many clinical physiologists work in the field of kinesiology, or exercise or sport science.

Universities offering these degrees usually require courses in anatomy and physiology, nutrition and psychology. These majors are also good starting points for students who want to teach physical education, health or nutrition.

The salary of an exercise physiologist varies quite a bit based on level of experience and education and where the physiologist works. Salaries range from about $25,000 to $75,000, although most seem to fall in the mid or higher level of that range.

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