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Amid competitive application process, pre-medical students turn to osteopathic medicine

BY MICHELE NAROV
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 25, 2010

LSA senior Elyse Rosenthal always intended to apply to a traditional — or allopathic — medical school. It wasn’t until months into her senior year at the University that she discovered an alternative way to pursue a medical career: studying osteopathic medicine.

Now Rosenthal is scrapping her original plans in favor of going to a different type of medical school that takes a more holistic approach to medicine, focusing on the mind and spirit as well as the body.

Rosenthal said she considers her discovery of osteopathic medicine a “twist of fate” because, for her, it is an ideal way to practice medicine.

“(The) philosophy and mission statements of all the osteopathic schools are exactly how I think practicing medicine should be,” Rosenthal said.

Each year, hundreds of students at the University — and hundreds of thousands of students nationwide — apply to medical school. Only a fraction of them pursue osteopathic medicine, a relatively new practice that emphasizes the role of the muscular skeletal system in overall patient health. Though the University doesn't have a osteopathy program, it is among the top feeder schools in the nation in the number of students who enter the field.

However, in recent years the percentage of students interested in osteopathic medicine has increased substantially, according to medical school experts.

Gina Moses, associate director of application services with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), said more students are applying to osteopathy schools across the nation every year.

“We’ve seen about an 11.9-percent increase, while interest in MD schools is pretty much flat-lining,” she said.

According to the AACOM, the University is the second highest feeder school in terms of students applying to and matriculating at osteopathic medical schools.

David Brawn, associate director for continuing student services and pre-health advisor at the University, wrote in e-mail interview that within the last three years, the number of students interested in osteopathic medicine at the University has increased.

“The number of UM students who applied to (Doctor of Osteopathy) schools in 2007 was 195, compared to 388 last year,” he wrote.

Moses said the growing interest is due to numerous factors, like the rising number of osteopathic schools across the country and the increase in class sizes within these schools, among others.

Despite the growth, there are only 29 Doctor of Osteopathy degree-granting schools in the United States, compared with more than 100 Medical Doctor degree-granting schools or allopathic medical schools, according to the 2010 College Information Book published by the AACOM.

Moses said another explanation for the increase in applicants is that osteopathic medicine appeals more to students beginning their medical careers today.

“I believe that the millennial generation is more committed to the personal aspect of medicine and patient care, which are the hallmarks of osteopathic methods,” Moses said.

LSA senior Dustin Harmon said he plans to attend osteopathic school in the fall because osteopathic doctors are less likely to rely on pills and medications as a form of treatment.

“For a headache, you can crack (a patient’s) neck and set it so that it alleviates pressure, rather than just saying, ‘Take some ibuprofen,’” Harmon said.

Rosenthal said practitioners who felt the medical profession was becoming too standardized and impersonal developed the field.

“Osteopathic medicine focuses more on patient history and a lot of outside factors that should be incorporated into a person’s care that sometimes aren’t,” she said.

Though in previous years osteopathic doctors had fewer opportunities to practice their specialty, Brawn wrote that is no longer the case.

“DOs have long since gained rights to practice medicine in all 50 states and in more than 50 different countries,” he wrote. “The full range of opportunities is available in both fields.”

Moses said she becomes “crazed” when she hears “campus myths” about osteopathic medicine.

“People think they can’t specialize or practice internationally,” she said. “It’s just not true. DOs are not limited at all.”

Currently, osteopathic doctors can fulfill medical doctorate residencies and offer the same prescriptions as a medical doctorate. In addition, Rosenthal said doctorate osteopathic schools and medical schools have almost identical curriculums.

“You have the same basic science classes, and you take the same clinical exam,” she said. “But then you also have an extra osteopathic principle and practicum class that teaches you how to do exams that help you to understand the body with your hands.”

Despite the similarities among the fields, Rosenthal said some stigmas remain attached to the field of osteopathic medicine because it only gained recognition by the American Medical Association in 1969.

“Older generations, like my grandparents didn’t respect it as much at first,” she said.

Mariella Mecozzi, senior assistant director of pre-professional services at the University, said stigmas stem from ignorance about the practice of osteopathic medicine.

“I think people are often skeptical of what they don’t know,” she said.

Mecozzi also said patients can often be wary of DO doctors because they believe it is easier for students to be accepted to DO schools, but according to Mecozzi, there is only a slight difference between the grade point averages of students accepted to MD and DO schools nationally.

“The explanation I can give you is that DO schools pay a lot of attention to what else the student brings to the table,” she said. “They look for good GPAs and good letters of recommendation.”

She added that the real difference between MD and DO students lies within Medical College Admission Test scores. According to Mecozzi, MD students score, on average, about 30 on the MCAT — which has a score range from 1 to 45 — while DO students score about 25 points on average on the test.

Rosenthal said many of her friends have begun applying to both MD and DO schools to improve their chances of admission — a trend she believes is helping to dissipate the remnants of stigmas about osteopathic medicine inherited from older generations.

“Now that our generation is starting to learn so much about it and the generation right above us is starting to accept it more because their kids are going to these schools more often, I think osteopathic medicine will become as common as allopathic medicine,” she said.

Harmon said because the stigma associated with osteopathic medicine is disappearing, there’s more camaraderie between allopathic and osteopathic medical professionals.

“I don’t think there’s this huge barrier that used to exist when DOs and MDs just thought in completely different ways,” he said.

Mecozzi also said that there is more unity between the two medical fields.

“The last few generations of (MD and DO) doctors have had more of an opportunity to work side by side,” she said.

Harmon said that regardless of the way osteopathic medicine is received in today’s world, he still prefers to attend a DO school.

“I’ve worked with osteopathic and MD physicians, and I’ve shadowed both,” Harmon said. “You get to establish a better relationship with the patient in the long term if you’re an osteopathic physician, in my opinion.”

Mecozzi said eventually, after the frenzy of applying to medical schools subsides, the degree achieved becomes less important than the skill of the doctor.

“I think there’s more to a doctor than the letters behind their name,” she said.


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