As the nation faces a physician shortage, physician leaders in the practice of osteopathic medicine are on a roll.
While slightly more than one in 20 U.S. physicians have D.O. degrees, their numbers have grown rapidly since the discipline added five new osteopathic medical schools and three branch campuses after 1990. The expansion brings the total number of schools of osteopathic medicine to 20 plus the three branches that are accredited with their parent schools. In comparison, there are 125 schools of allopathic medicine.
"It's pretty lucky," said Douglas Wood, D.O., president of the American Association of Osteopathic Medicine, based in Chevy Chase, Md., of the timely expansion. The rapid growth was prompted not so much by astute workforce analysis as by the desire of members of the profession to spread osteopathic practice to areas of the country beyond its traditional stronghold states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and New Jersey, said Wood, who also sits on the federally funded Council on Graduate Medical Education, which tracks physician workforce trends.
In July, the council issued a report calling for a 15% expansion of the physician workforce in the coming decade to address a projected physician shortage. COGME has been severely criticized by workforce analyst Richard Cooper, M.D., of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, for denying there was an impending shortage. Cooper, who projected a looming shortage 10 years ago, says today the shortfall could be as large as 200,000 physicians in 15 years.
"I'm not sure there is any secret," said Wood of the osteopaths' seeming prescience. "If you go into the early '90s and into even the late '90s, there was an understanding that if we were going to increase knowledge of osteopathic medicine we would need to increase the number of schools of osteopathic medicine."
The AMA reports in its Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., 2003-2004 Edition that there were 835,156 physicians with M.D. degrees in the U.S. in 2001 and another 47,285 physicians with D.O. degrees, or an overall ratio of 17.7 to 1 allopathic to osteopathic physicians. The ratio is larger among physicians age 65 and older at 27.5 to 1, but shrinks to 13.9 to 1 among physicians under the age of 35, according to the 2001 AMA data.
The American Osteopathic Association has more current numbers and claims there are 48,380 D.O.s in active practice this year, compared with 27,186 in 1990.
The newest colleges of osteopathic medicine are:
In addition, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine will open a branch in Georgia, near Atlanta, in 2005.
Kenneth Veit, D.O., is senior vice president for academic affairs and dean at the college, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1899 and will graduate 250 doctors this year. Eighty new medical students are expected to join the first Georgia class in September.
The decision to expand was driven by three factors, Veit said. Alumni in the state expressed interest and encouragement; the Osteopathic Institute of the South, a not-for-profit foundation, had been funding clinical clerkships in Georgia with the college; and the patient-to-physician ratios in the state were well below the national average, Veit said. "Our goal is to recruit from the south with hope and desire for them to stay in the south."
Capital costs for the new campus will be funded by the school through borrowing against the present college endowment and not through operational funds of the main campus, Veit said.
Wood said he knows of two other schools that may soon add extensions, but he declined to name them. After that, though, the building boom probably will subside, he said.