Health Matters Blog

Osteopaths Filling the Gap in Primary Care

by Prudence MacKinney, VP Physician & Business Development

Prudence MacKinney

Prudence MacKinney

The primary care landscape has undergone a significant change over the past two decades, with more and more physicians entering the field with a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree than the more traditionally recognized M.D. designation. This rise is spurred by the growing awareness of the connection between a patient’s mind, body and spirit and the belief that each depends on the other for good overall health.

More than 60,000 physicians currently practicing medicine in the United States have D.O. degrees, according to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). That number is expected to jump to 100,000 by the year 2020. Furthermore, 60 percent of all practicing osteopaths have chosen to specialize in primary care fields such as family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics or obstetrics, compared to 35 percent of current physicians holding M.D.s.

An osteopath undergoes the same rigorous training as an M.D to become a practicing physician. Both routes require an individual to have a four-year undergraduate degree and to pass the MCAT test to get into a four-year, accredited medical college. Completion of residency training and board examinations and are also required before the physician can take a state licensing exam.

Training for the two medical degrees diverges mostly in their respective philosophical approaches. Osteopathy is rooted in holistic beliefs that the body is capable of regulating and healing itself, and treatment is based on understanding the relationship between form and function.

“Primary care is a natural fit for osteopathic physicians given our belief of treating the whole person,” says Andrea J. Galasso,

D.O., who is part of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s department of internal medicine. “Not only do we evaluate and treat medical issues, we are also attuned to the many outside influences that can affect one’s overall health, such as stress, lifestyle and how each can act upon the body and contribute to ill health.”

The origins of Osteopathy date back to the mid-1800s when an M.D. named Andrew Taylor Still from Baldwin City, Kansas believed he could better treat disease if he understood more about how the body heals itself. Up until then, western medical practice was characterized by surgical techniques and medicines that dealt with a particular illness or injury rather than what caused the condition. Dr. Still used the systems of the body as a starting point for learning how medicines, exercise and nutrition can play a role in preventing illness. He coined the term osteopathy (from the Greek word for bone, osteon) for his new approach.

Dr. Still’s work evolved into the technique known as osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), which enables osteopaths to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury in a patient through stretching, resistance and gentle pressure. OMT is especially effective with musculoskeletal conditions and injuries, such as pain the back, hands or feet, that account for the vast majority of doctor visits each year. While not all osteopaths offer OMT, but many do.

Despite the projected increase in the number of osteopaths, statistics indicate there will still be a shortage of physicians over the next few decades. The number of people over age 65 will double during that time, while a third of currently practicing physicians will reach retirement age. Osteopathic schools have responded by actively recruiting students from underserved populations in hopes of providing care in urban and rural area where there will be the greatest need, according to the AOA. By 2020, one in four medical students will be studying for their D.O.