BETHESDA, Maryland — ‘Tis the season for celebrating with family and reflecting on the past 12 months. For many of us, this pandemic year has underscored the importance of access to quality health care and to accurate information about health care and the people who provide it.
Misinformation about health care is not, unfortunately, limited to COVID. I frequently encounter misunderstandings about doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.’s), how we are trained, and why we are important. At a time when so many Americans are focused on their health care, much of which is delivered by physicians who graduated from colleges of osteopathic medicine, it’s important to provide some understanding.
In the United States, licensed physicians can have one of two degrees. Both D.O.’s and M.D.’s go through four years of rigorous training in highly selective medical schools and share the same post-graduate training through combined internship and residency programs. They practice side-by-side in hospitals and medical centers across the country. Chances are, with more than 5,400 licensed in Ohio, 800 in the Cleveland area alone, you or a friend have seen a D.O., whether you knew it or not.
Then why the different degrees? Why are we proud of our contributions to medicine and insistent about maintaining the colleges of osteopathic medicine that provide a distinctly different pathway to medical practice? And why should anyone outside the profession – especially patients — care? Because it is, and always has been, about providing patients with the power of choice.
Osteopathic medicine was introduced in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still to improve medical practice at a time when physicians hurt as many people as they helped. His approach pioneered the concept of “wellness.” When he started the first osteopathic medical school in 1892, he focused on rigorous science, preventive medicine, and the philosophy that physicians should focus on care of the whole patient rather than just on disease.
The practice of osteopathic medicine attempted to avoid the harm often caused by medications and surgical procedures of the day by activating the body’s own self-healing mechanisms. To promote health and healing by using what we call osteopathic manipulative treatment to correct problems involving the bones, joints, tissues and muscles of the body.
Over time, the concepts of whole person care and health promotion have been adopted – at least in theory – by the entire medical community. While the gap between the philosophies embraced by D.O.’s and M.D.’s has narrowed, it hasn’t disappeared — and is perhaps more important than ever.
Arising from their philosophy of care, colleges of osteopathic medicine fill a critical need by training first-rate primary care doctors as well as every variety of specialist. Locally, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic and Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine are partnering to transform medical education through their Transformative Care Continuum program aimed, in part, at providing the primary care physicians our rural and underserved communities so desperately need.
Patients can benefit from the outlook and experience provided by graduates of colleges of osteopathic medicine. These two distinct pathways complement each other and strengthen our health care system, allowing us to deliver the best patient care possible from big cities to rural communities.
So, if you’re wondering what that “D.O.” means on your physician’s white coat, it means that inside the coat is a great doctor who has been trained to provide you – all of you – with the very best care.
Dr. Robert A. Cain, D.O., is president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. He previously served as the associate dean for clinical education at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) and functioned as the chief academic officer for the Ohio Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education, a statewide medical education consortium. As a specialist in pulmonary medicine, Dr. Cain graduated from OU-HCOM in 1988 and operated a private practice in Ohio from 1994 to 2008.
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