It seems there’s a parallel medical world out there. One where fully qualified physicians and surgeons have a “DO” after their name rather than an “MD." So is a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) a licensed medical doctor, just like an MD?
You might be surprised how often this question is still asked—even by physician recruiters. Last year, in fact, the American Osteopathic Association conducted a survey and discovered that 29 percent of adults in the U.S. didn’t know DOs are licensed to practice medicine; 33 percent didn’t know DOs can legally prescribe medicine; and 63 percent didn’t know DOs can perform surgery.
Yes, DOs are fully licensed medical doctors. Their DO training follows the exact rigorous curriculum of MDs, including the same two years of clinical rotations. DOs are recognized as equals to MDs at every level of the government in all 50 states. DOs also share the same unlimited practice rights as MDs in 44 countries.
Why are so many people in the dark about osteopathic medicine?
Osteopathic medicine has an image problem. It was first theorized by a 19th-century frontier physician named Andrew Taylor Still—an MD himself—who later founded A.T. Still University, the first osteopathic school in Kirksville, MO. Still decried the overuse of castor oil, opium, and other elixirs of the day. He also believed that many diseases had their roots in a disturbed musculoskeletal system that could be treated hands-on—techniques critics assailed as “pseudoscience.”
Today, the medical community categorically accepts this treatment approach. So much so that osteopathic medicine is now one of the fastest-growing healthcare segments in the country.
What makes osteopathic medicine different?
Osteopathic physicians are trained to look at the “whole” patient and integrate them into the healthcare process as a partner. They also receive special training in the musculoskeletal system—manipulating the spine, muscles and bones for diagnosis and treatment. Their holistic approach adheres to four tenets:
1. That the body is a unit, and the person represents a combination of body, mind and spirit.
2. That the body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance.
3. That structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
4. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.
Osteopathic medicine is experiencing a major boom.
In 1980, there were 14 osteopathic medical schools and just 4,940 students. Today, there are 30 osteopathic medical schools offering instruction at 40 locations—and more being planned. One school, The College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State, ranks among the Top 10 Best Medical Schools in the U.S. for primary care. In fact, almost 25% percent of the nation’s medical school graduates will come from an osteopathic medical college this year.
Why are so many students drawn to osteopathic medicine?
It puts a much stronger emphasis on community medicine and preventive care, and that appeals to students. Medical students are also drawn to osteopathic medicine for its more personal, hands-on approach. One student at the Atlanta, Georgia campus of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, told us that going to DO school had nothing to do with scores or grades and everything to do with how osteopathic medicine considers the entire patient.
“While I was completing my undergraduate I shadowed over 30 doctors, MDs and DOs, but the osteopathic docs just asked a lot of questions and really delved into the patient’s problems as a whole,” says the student. “For instance, before they asked for expensive medical tests like CT scans and MRIs, they’d apply diagnosis techniques like palpation or percussion—gently tapping the abdominal area, say, to determine if the size and shape of the liver suggest inflammation. I was enthralled by this ‘whole body’ approach, so osteopathic medicine was a natural choice for my career.”
Is osteopathic medicine the answer to the physician shortage?
It’s definitely leading healthcare in the right direction. More than 60% of all DOs choose to practice in primary care. Osteopathic medicine also maintains a mission to embed doctors in rural and underserved areas.
Many osteopathic schools like the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York seek to dispatch doctors to poorer neighborhoods and towns most in need of medical care. Their mission statement emphasizes the need to increase minorities in the practice of medicine—and doctors in its community. “The island of Manhattan has lots of doctors, but not here in Harlem,” said Dr. Robert B. Goldberg.
Fittingly located on 125th street in Harlem, Touro is housed a building across the street from the legendary Apollo Theater. Touro also now operates campuses in Vallejo, CA, and Henderson, NV, and it took over New York Medical College, a conventional medical school, three years ago.
You probably don’t know them by name, but a number of DOs are well known in the medical field—they’re simply not known for their “DO” designation. They include physicians like Leonard Calabrese, DO, a pioneer in HIV research at the Cleveland Clinic; Joel Weisman, DO, one of the physicians who discovered AIDS; Enrico Fazzini, DO, a Parkinson’s disease expert whose patients have included Pope John Paul II and Mohammed Ali; and Barbara Ross-Lee, DO, the first African-American woman to serve as dean of a U.S. medical school.
So set your physician recruitment sights on a Doctor of Osteopathy, and please do address them as “doctor”—they’ve definitely earned it.
If you have more insights about osteopathic medicine, we'd love to read your comments.