D.O.s offer benefits, not buzzwords

So you’ve told us why you want to become a doctor, but why osteopathic medicine? As a student interviewer at DMU, I have asked this question. Nearly every response described how the applicant was drawn to the profession’s “holistic approach” to patient care. But what does “holistic” mean?

One definition of holism is “the philosophy based on the belief that entities such as individuals and other complete organisms function as complete units that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts” (Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 19th ed.).

Thus, “holistic” is more than a buzzword, although its true meaning has seemingly been diluted over time. It is no wonder that medical school applicants become confused on how to describe osteopathy. While osteopathic medicine certainly encompasses a holistic approach to patient care, there are far more reasons why osteopathic physicians are distinct from other health professionals. The profession has come a long way since the days of A.T. Still; yet many challenges still lie ahead as osteopaths continue to increase their global presence.

I envision five ways in which our profession can move forward and distinguish ourselves as osteopaths beyond descriptive terms like “holistic.”

As a future D.O., I envision five ways in which our profession can move forward and distinguish ourselves beyond descriptive terms like “holistic.” The first is for D.O.s to seek leadership roles at the local, state, national or international level. It is not enough to serve within the American Osteopathic Association; we must branch out and seek more influential opportunities (e.g., with the National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Osteopathic physicians must strive for visibility and become active in health policy.

We must also seek opportunities to practice global health. Currently, only 52 countries out of 194 United Nations memberstates formally recognize the D.O. degree. We must work to change this. In many developing countries, access to basic primary care is absent. Osteopathic medical schools consistently graduate many primary care physicians who could potentially respond to this global need.

Osteopathic physicians often come from nontraditional backgrounds, have had additional work experience or acquired other advanced degrees. These credentials and experiences highlight the variety of expertise we bring to patients. We must also become comfortable with research and conduct rigorous studies that demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of osteopathic manipulative medicine. Patients will gravitate toward D.O.s if they recognize how these services may improve their health or function.

Finally, the profession must improve its communications with the general public. Every household within the U.S. should know what a D.O. is and how they are distinctive from other health professionals. I continue to encounter people who have never heard of osteopathic medicine. This absolutely must change in the coming years, and it begins with practicing osteopaths who take pride in their profession and readily explain their training and its benefits to their patients.

Roberto Fernandez, M.P.H., D.O.’13, is the first DMU student to be named the National Student D.O. of the Year by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). This editorial is excerpted from his application for the award, given annually to one student of the nation’s 34 colleges of osteopathic medicine and more than 19,000 osteopathic medical students.

Fernandez is the national legislative affairs representative for the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP), founder and chair of the COSGP global health ad hoc committee and the national student representative to the American Osteopathic Association Council on Osteopathic Postgraduate Training Institutes. He also was recently elected the regional vice president for academic affairs and health policy for the Latino Medical Student Association Midwest. He was accepted in AACOM’s Osteopathic Health Policy Intern Program, in which he’ll spend two months in 2013 in AACOM’s government relations department.

An active campus leader and community volunteer, Fernandez was a WHO intern in Geneva, Switzerland, last summer. He earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s in public health from the University of Iowa.

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