Surge in DO students could help ease physician shortage
A report touted this week by the American Osteopathic Association shows an 85 percent increase in osteopathic medical students since 2007. Now, about 1 in 4 medical students attends an osteopathic medicine college—an enrollment figure that has increased an average of 25 percent every five years.
The report comes amid concerns that the United States is facing a physician shortage: The gap between physician supply and demand will range between 61,700 and 94,700 physicians by 2025, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. A chunk of the shortfall is projected to be in primary care, a field in which many osteopaths specialize.
"The increasing recognition of the shortage of physicians to deal with aging and related diseases, especially primary care, is leading to the growth in the number of DOs," said Dr. Stephen Shannon, CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, based in Bethesda, Md.
In Illinois, there were 2,442 DOs practicing in 2017—a 57.6 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Nationally, the total number of osteopathic physicians, including residents, has reached 108,118, up from 30,990 in 1990.
Across the U.S., there are two types of licensed physicians: those with a Doctor of Medicine degree, MD, and those with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, DO. Only 10 percent of all physicians in the U.S. are DOs. The percentage is expected to go up to 20 percent by 2020, said Adrienne White-Faines, CEO of AOA.
Despite the surge, there are still only 34 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine in the U.S. In Illinois, the sole accredited program is the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine of Midwestern University, located in Downers Grove. Although the number of students enrolled in the program is fixed every year at 206, the dean, Karen Nichols, says she has seen a significant increase in applications. Last fall she received 8,000 applications.
The difference between MDs and DOs lies in the philosophy of treating patients. MDs practice allopathic medicine, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases. DOs practice osteopathic medicine, which focuses on seeing the patient as a "whole person" to reach a diagnosis, rather than treating the symptoms alone. The belief is that all parts of the body work together and interact with each other.
Historically, MDs and DOs have had an antagonistic relationship, one that can be traced back to World War I, when the U.S. government denied DOs the ability to practice in the military alongside allopathic physicians. California placed a ban on issuing physician licenses to DOs in the 1960s. The ban lifted in 1974.
White-Faines says things are different now. "What you start to see today is that MDs actually appreciate and are embracing the influence the osteopathic physicians bring to the medical field," she said.
Dr. Dane Shepherd, an osteopathic physician and surgeon at Osteopathy Chicago in the Loop, said DOs and MDs still compete for educational resources and practice spots. But he predicts the boundaries will merge in the next 20 to 30 years.
Shannon of the AACOM agrees. "DOs are more likely to go to primary care and more likely to go to underserved communities and rural areas," he added. Therefore, increasing the number of DOs could enhance the practices of medicine in some of the country's neediest areas.
"Surge in DO students could help ease physician shortage" originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business.
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