Osteopaths changing the face of health care

If you’re like most health consumers, you probably don’t know what osteopaths are, let alone what sort of medicine they practice. However, osteopathic doctors (DOs) and schools of osteopathic medicine are playing a little known but critical role in stemming the nation’s need for primary care doctors, according to experts at Touro University of California’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in the Bay Area city of Vallejo.

“A lot of medical students are shunning away from [primary care],” said Dr. Michael Clearfield, the school’s dean, noting that osteopathic schools traditionally graduate more primary care physicians, of which the nation is facing a critical shortage.

“It’s just going to get worse as the population gets older and more and more boomers are getting to be Medicare age; there are going to unprecedented demands [for primary care],” he said. 

Since salaries are higher for specialists, Clearfield says, more than half of medical schools with MD programs have made specialty care a priority, which makes the primary care field even smaller.

Touro’s top-ranked College of Osteopathic Medicine says it is situated to help shore up the front lines of patient care with more personalized care.

Osteopathic medicine differs from traditional modern medicine in that it focuses “not only on medicinal medications but also looking at the body as a whole and the intrinsic capability of the body to heal itself,” Clearfield said. 

Osteopathic medicine was developed in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, a physician and Civil War surgeon who pioneered the concept of “wellness” and recognized the importance of treating illness within the context of the whole body, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

In addition to all of the practices available through modern medicine, including prescription medicine and surgery, osteopathic physicians incorporate a practice known as “osteopathic manipulative treatment,” which uses the hands to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury.

“We’re using hands along with other skills and senses, looking and listening, palpating the body to help determine the problem and, if necessary, treat them to get a better effect,” Clearfield said.

Osteopathic medical students also receive classroom training in communicating with patients, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Because of this whole-person approach to medicine, approximately 60 percent of all DOs choose to practice in the primary care disciplines of family practice, general internal medicine and pediatrics.

Clearfield believes that Touro’s strong community focus and commitment to the future of health care gets translated to the students and impacts where they choose to work. U.S. News and World Report rated Touro University of California’s College of Osteopathic Medicine as one of the top 10 osteopathic schools in the nation that produces primary care residents.

Part of the Touro College Network, the Vallejo campus also features a kosher campus, Jewish holidays observed and an on-site chaplain. Of the 1,400 students attending Touro University of California, 15 percent are from Southern California.

Although the majority of students and faculty are not Jewish, Clearfield believes that there is a clear connection through the philosophy of Touro’s founder, Bernie Lander.

“He wanted to improve the world through health care and education. He looked at areas where he could do that, by putting an organization that was based on the principles of Orthodox Judaism out in California,” he said.

Osteopaths undergo four years of medical school, complete three years of residency and are fully qualified to practice medicine and perform surgery.

The attraction of the osteopathic approach, Clearfield believes, is that “it is more personalized … a lot of people are turned off by medicine, feeling more like a widget in an assembly line than a partner in their own health care … so many people don’t ask questions to their doctor, don’t know what they’re taking and why.”

Brandon Stauber, a graduate of UCLA and Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, said he applied to osteopathic medical schools because he found the philosophy attractive. That is also what led him to his current residency at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.

“One of the reasons I came here is that Portland is a very open city when it comes to all types of practitioners,” he said. 

A Sacramento native raised with strong Jewish values, Stauber said he was also drawn to the Jewish roots of Touro’s California location.

He currently works alongside MDs and DOs. In contrast to the MDs, he said, “the DOs get a lot of hands-on experience in our training … by the time we get into residency we’re not afraid to touch people.”

However, Clearfield says that a clear bias against osteopaths exists in many medical establishments.

“That’s been a constant barrage for this profession for 120 some years,” he said. “Our graduates have gone to the most prestigious institutions – Harvard, Stanford, you can name it … [yet] there are physicians that are still biased against our profession and are for the most part misinformed.”

Still, the field is growing rapidly, from six osteopathic schools of medicine in the 1970s to 29 today, Clearfield said. Although the nation’s 80,000 osteopathic physicians practicing in the United States represent one-tenth of the number of MDs, they take on a disproportionate amount of primary care, Clearfield said. 

“As a profession we’ve been community based since inception … which allows students to get wider experience,” he said. “Our students are out in doctor’s offices, clinics … we focus on the first encounter.”