Osteopathy schools lack originality and purpose

Photo by Casey Gomez

The emergence of “Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine” (D.O.) schools in the world of medicine has largely been explained by the increased need for alternative tracks to medical school to meet the primary care demand of the rapidly aging U.S. population. As a premedical student, I continue to remain baffled as to why there exists this subset of medical schools to begin with.

The main premise of D.O. schools are that they are training a new cohort of physicians to look at the diagnosis as a cumulative process rather than treating based on symptoms alone, which may very well be a good thing as more and more people require less invasive or non-traditional methods of treatment and palliative care. But I am unconvinced that D.O. schools are accomplishing this aim at all. The schools will emphasize to students that there is no difference between theirs and a traditional M.D. school, that both will lead to the same specialty and residency opportunities.

They will stress to the pre-med student that both are perfectly viable ways of becoming a licensed and practicing physician, and should garner the same amount of respect as a profession, despite there being evidence that D.O. schools have lower requirements for admission. If there is such an emphasis on homogeneity of career and patient outcomes, why then do D.O. schools have a reason for existing at all?

I would argue that D.O. schools do themselves a disservice by assuring students that the two paths are largely the same. If doctors practicing osteopathic medicine still complete urology or surgical residencies, operating alongside their MD counterparts, how is that in line with a different approach to treatment? How does ‘holistic’ care play out day-to-day in hospitals in the real world? If they wish to represent a true departure from a more rigid form of medicine, schools should not be shying away from being different and should be working harder to further distinguish themselves from a baseline medical education.

Until D.O. schools are able to back their claims with data that their doctors actually provide more holistic care and have a greater emphasis on preventative measures, they will continue to fail to garner the interest of the most competitive students who wish to pursue a career in healthcare, and perhaps more importantly, the renown and respect that a profession in the healthcare sector demands.

The next half century’s approach to medical innovation will be preventative, with the advent of personalized medicine and advanced gene therapy. As aging populations have to increasingly deal with extended lifespans and how to best avoid diseases complicated and induced by age, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, it is a medical imperative that people begin to think of medicine less as a cut-and-dry diagnosis that leads to astronomical costs as issues are not resolved and more of an ongoing series of follow-ups. We need to be proactive, and it does not seem like D.O. schools are doing much to change the rhetoric and medical practice around that.