More People Seek Osteopathic Care

People are beginning to take a more active role in their health care. And they are looking for less invasive treatments.

The huge growth in osteopathic care reflects these trends. Osteopathic care focuses on the whole person.

Osteopathy is based on the belief that the human body has a built-in ability to heal itself. It focuses on the relationship between the body's muscles, nerves, bones and organs. Osteopathic physicians use a hands-on approach to manipulate the body and the skeleton into healthy positions. Some consider it an alternative to modern medicine.

Osteopathic Physicians

Osteopathic physicians are full-fledged, practicing doctors. They do everything that medical doctors (MDs) do. But they put a greater emphasis on the whole person. They also consider a wide range of environmental factors.

"Our approach may be totally different than the MD's, because we look at the individual as a total being, not just as parts," says Dr. John V. Chang. He's an osteopathic physician in Massachusetts. "By treating people as a whole, I think you get better results."

The United States is the only country that trains osteopathic physicians as full-fledged physicians. They can prescribe medications, perform surgeries and treat emergencies just like their MD colleagues. Osteopathic physicians have the letters "DO" after their name rather than "MD."

Both DOs and MDs complete four years of basic medical education. After finishing medical school, they complete graduate medical education through internships and residencies.

Both DOs and MDs can choose to specialize in any area of medicine, such as family practice (primary care), surgery, pediatrics and obstetrics.

DOs receive additional training in osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) as part of their medical education. They use OMT to diagnose, treat and even prevent illness or injury.

"People are saying they want the kind of doctors that DOs are," says Wendy Fernando. She works with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) in Maryland. "They want physicians who pay attention to their whole body, to their entire life. They want doctors who are partners in their health."

Osteopathic physicians practice osteopathic medicine, while MDs practice allopathic medicine. Allopathic medicine is the mainstream method of using surgery and prescription medications or drugs to treat patients. Osteopathic physicians may use allopathic remedies as well as osteopathic remedies.

"The growth of osteopathic medicine, I believe, is due to the realization of the public and the students who are applying to medical schools that it makes sense to treat the whole person, not just a specific disease or injury," says Dr. Michael J. Sampson. He's an osteopathic physician in Atlanta.

Currently, there are more than 67,000 DOs practicing in the United States. It is estimated that by 2020, there will be more than 100,000 practicing osteopathic physicians in the U.S. This is according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Osteopathic physicians are graduates of one of the 26 osteopathic medical schools located in the U.S. About 10 new schools have opened since 2000.

"Nearly 20 percent of U.S. medical students are studying at osteopathic medical colleges," says Fernando.

"Perhaps it's because of the demand out in the community [for primary care]," says Chang. According to Chang, fewer MDs are choosing to specialize in primary care (family medicine). However, many DOs are interested in this area, so the DOs are filling the void.

"Right now is a critical time in the health-care system in the country because there are huge shortages, and I think we have a unique role to play, particularly in the primary care area," says Fernando.

Osteopathic medicine has always been dedicated toward the primary care fields, says Fernando. In fact, just over half of new osteopathic physicians go into primary care.

"You'll find many of the osteopathic medical schools in smaller, rural areas of the country," says Fernando. "And in almost every case those schools' mission statements talk about preparing doctors to serve in underserved rural and urban areas of the country."


American Osteopathic Association
A wealth of information about the profession

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine
Facts about osteopathic medical education

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