Osteopathic medicine is a unique form of American medical care begun in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still, M.D., D.O. Dr. Still was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of 19th century medicine. He believed that many of the medications of his day were useless or even harmful. Dr. Still was one of the first in his time to study the attributes of good health so that he could better understand the process of disease.

In response, Dr. Still developed a philosophy of medicine based on ideas that date back to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. That philosophy focuses on the unity of the mind, body and spirit. Dr. Still identified the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health. He recognized the body's ability to heal itself and stressed preventive medicine, eating properly and keeping fit.

Dr. Still pioneered the concept of "wellness" more than 140 years ago. In today's terms, D.O.s evaluate each patient's personal health risks such as smoking, high blood pressure, excessive cholesterol levels, stress and other lifestyle factors. In coordination with prescribing appropriate medical treatment, osteopathic physicians act as teachers to help patients take more responsibility for their well-being and to change unhealthy patterns.

Osteopathic medicine is one of the fastest growing healthcare professions in the U.S. and brings a unique philosophy to traditional medicine. With a strong emphasis on the inter-relationship of the body's nerves, muscles, bones and organs, doctors of osteopathic medicine apply the philosophy of treating the whole person to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness, disease and injury.

If you're like most people, you've been going to a physician ever since you were born and perhaps were not aware whether you were seeing a D.O. (osteopathic physician) or an M.D. (allopathic physician). You may not even be aware there are two types of licensed physicians in the United States.

The fact is both D.O.s and M.D.s are fully qualified physicians licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery. Is there a difference between these two kinds of physicians? Yes and no.

D.O.s and M.D.s are alike in many ways:

  • Applicants to both D.O. and M.D. medical colleges typically have four-year undergraduate degrees with an emphasis on science courses
  • Both D.O.s and M.D.s complete four years of basic medical education
  • After medical school, both D.O.s and M.D.s obtain graduate medical education through internships and residencies
  • Both D.O. and M.D. training typically lasts three to six years and prepares D.O.s and M.D.s to practice a specialty
  • Both D.O.s and M.D.s can practice in any specialty area of medicine such as pediatrics, family practice, psychiatry, surgery or obstetrics
  • D.O.s and M.D.s must pass comparable examinations to obtain state licenses
  • D.O.s and M.D.s both practice in the same fully accredited and licensed health care facilities
  • Together, D.O.s and M.D.s are the foundation of healthcare in America

D.O.s, however, belong to a separate yet equal branch of American medical care. It is the ways that D.O.s and M.D.s are different that can bring an extra dimension to your family's health care.

21st Century Frontier Medicine

Just as Dr. Still pioneered osteopathic medicine in 1874, today's osteopathic physicians serve as modern-day medical pioneers. Osteopathic physicians bring health care to areas of greatest need:

  • Approximately 65% of practicing osteopathic physicians specialize in primary care areas such as pediatrics, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, and internal medicine
  • Many D.O.s fill a critical need for physicians by practicing in rural and other medically underserved communities

Today's osteopathic physicians are on the cutting edge of medicine. D.O.s combine today's medical technology with their ears to listen caringly to their patients, their eyes to see their patients as whole persons, and their hands to diagnose and treat injury and illness.

D.O.s bring something extra to medicine:

  • Osteopathic medical schools emphasize training students to be primary care physicians
  • D.O.s practice a whole person approach to medicine. Instead of just treating specific symptoms or illnesses, they regard you as an integrated whole (mind, body and spirit)
  • Osteopathic physicians focus is on preventive health care
  • D.O.s receive extra training in the musculoskeletal system, the body's interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones that make up two-thirds of body mass. This training provides osteopathic physicians a better understanding of the ways an illness or injury in one part of your body can affect another
  • Osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT…see below) is incorporated into the training and practice of osteopathic physicians. With OMT, osteopathic physicians use their hands to diagnose illness and injury to encourage your body's natural tendency toward good health. By combining all other available medical options with OMT, D.O.s offer patients the most comprehensive care available in medicine today.

You are more than just the sum of your body parts. Instead of just treating specific symptoms osteopathic physicians concentrate on treating patients as a whole.  D.O.s know the body’s structure plays a critical role in its ability to function.

Osteopathic physicians also use their ears to listen to you and your health concerns. D.O.s help patients develop attitudes and lifestyles that don’t just fight illness but also help prevent it. Millions of Americans prefer this concerned and compassionate care and have made D.O.s their physicians for life.

Professional Education
To be an osteopathic physician, an individual must be a graduate of one of the nation's osteopathic medical schools. Each school is accredited by the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA). This accreditation is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Typically, applicants to osteopathic medical colleges have four-year undergraduate degrees and complete specific science courses. Applicants must take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Osteopathic medical schools also require a personal interview to assess a student's interpersonal communication skills.

The curriculum at osteopathic medical schools involves four years of academic study. As a reflection of osteopathic philosophy, the curriculum emphasizes preventive medicine and comprehensive patient care. Throughout the curriculum, medical students learn to use osteopathic principles and techniques to diagnose and treat patients.

After completing osteopathic medical college, many D.O.s serve a one-year internship, gaining hands-on experience in internal medicine, emergency medicine, and family practice, as well as serving electives in core rotations such as obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics. This experience ensures that osteopathic physicians are first trained as primary care physicians. Internships provide D.O.s with the perspective to see and treat every patient as a whole person.

D.O.s serve residencies, consisting of two to six years of training. Residencies are available in the primary care disciplines of family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics, as well as other specialties such as surgery, radiology, psychiatry and sports medicine.

All physicians (both D.O.s and M.D.s) must pass examinations to obtain state licenses to practice. Each state has a licensing board that sets requirements for D.O.s to practice in that state.

Complete Care
D.O.s are complete physicians which means they are fully trained and licensed to prescribe medication and to perform surgery. D.O.s and M.D.s are the only two types of complete physicians in the United States.

D.O.s practice in all specialties of medicine from emergency medicine and cardiovascular surgery to psychiatry and geriatrics. However, D.O.s are trained to be generalists first and specialists second. The majority are family-oriented, primary care physicians. Many D.O.s practice in small towns, where they often care for entire families and whole communities.

OMT: Hands On Care

Nearly every day, medical science unveils new discoveries from brain scans to anti-cancer drugs. In the midst of these wonders, it's easy to forget that sometimes what patients really need is a healing touch.

Osteopathic physicians haven't forgotten. 

What Is OMT?
Osteopathic manipulative treatment, or OMT, is hands-on care. It involves using the hands to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury. Using OMT, your osteopathic physician (D.O.) will move your muscles and joints using techniques including stretching, gentle pressure and resistance.

Who Can Benefit From OMT?
OMT can help people of all ages and backgrounds. It can:

  • ease pain
  • promote healing
  • increase mobility

OMT is often used to treat muscle pain. But it can also help patients with a number of other health problems such as:

  • asthma
  • sinus disorder
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • migraines
  • menstrual pain

When appropriate, OMT can complement and even replace drugs or surgery. In this way, OMT brings an important dimension to standard medical care.

Tenets of Osteopathic Medicine

First, do no harm.  A thoughtful diagnosis should be made before exposing the patient to any potentially harmful procedure.

Look beyond the disease for the cause.  Treatment should center on the cause, with effect addressed only when it benefits the patient in some tangible way.

The practice of medicine should be based on sound medical principles. Only therapies proven clinically beneficial in improving patient outcome should be recommended.

The body is subject to mechanical laws. The science of physics applies to humans. Even a slight alteration in the body’s precision can result in disorders that overcome natural defenses.

The body has the potential to make all substances necessary to insure its health. No medical approach can exceed the efficacy of the body’s natural defense systems if those defenses are functioning properly. Therefore, teaching the patient to care for their own health and to prevent disease is part of a physician’s responsibility.

The nervous system controls, influences, and/or integrates all bodily functions.

Osteopathy embraces all known areas of practice.

Tenets of Osteopathic Medicine excerpted from A Historical Perspective on the Philosophy of Osteopathic Medicine, by Robert E. Suter, D.O., based on the writing of A.T. Still.

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