FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is Osteopathic Medicine?
There are presently two complete systems of medicine utilizing all available medical treatments (i.e., medicine, surgery, etc.). Those two are allopathic medicine which grants the practitioner an M.D. (Medical Doctor) degree, and osteopathic medicine which grants the practitioner a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree. Both are licensed in all 50 states, both serve in all branches of military service, and both are equal in the eyes of the law. Both have their own accreditation organizations: the American Medical Association for allopathic medicine and the American Osteopathic Association for osteopathic medicine.
Osteopathic medicine was founded in 1874 by an American named Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. Still was a physician who was disappointed with the medical treatment that was currently being practiced by allopathic physicians. He served in the Civil War as a soldier first, then after being wounded began to perform the duties of a surgeon in the Union hospitals. It was here where he grew disgusted at the ineffectiveness of physicians who amputated limbs and prescribed calomel (a mercury based drug which rotted the teeth, gums, and cheeks of the patient) without reservation. His faith in medicine was lessened further as he watched three of his children die from meningitis, despite medical treatment. He then dedicated his life to finding alternative means of healing. Through the laborious study of anatomy and other “materia medica” he devised “osteopathy” (pronounced: AH-stee-AH-puh-thee).
Dr. Still studied the ideal structure of the body’s musculoskeletal system and believed that the occasional manipulation of soft tissues enabled the body to function properly and to resist disease by empowering the immune system. Not surprisingly, medications had no part in the early days of this philosophy. It was not until the early 1900′s that medication and surgery — now thoroughly researched — became a permanent part of what is known now as osteopathic medicine. What Dr. Still provided was a philosophy, and from this holistic philosophy, D.O.s have developed new and effective means to treat and care for patients, which are then shared with the entire medical community.
Osteopathic physicians (D.O.s) can prescribe all forms of medication, perform all manners of surgery, and pursue all medical specialties. They have had identical training as M.D.s (with additional training in the musculoskeletal system) and work alongside their M.D. colleagues in most hospitals. In the eyes of the law, D.O.s and M.D.s are equal.
No. Although Dr. Taylor Still originally intended for osteopathy to be a drugless form of healing, we must keep in mind that the drugs of his time were incredibly dangerous. For example, one drug commonly prescribed by M.D.s during Still’s day was Calomel, a mercury-based drug which we know now to be incredibly toxic. During the early 20th century pharmaceuticals began to be comprehensively tested, and only approved when they were confirmed to be both safe and efficacious. Only then did D.O.s begin to incorporate drugs into their practice.
Furthermore, for D.O.s to have remained in a position of providing “drugless healing,” it would have required them to resist over a hundred years of medical evolution. Osteopathy was founded to be a complete system of healthcare. And to do so, it must be dynamic, and thus ever-changing in the face of new scientific findings.
What is the difference between osteopathy and osteopathic medicine, and between an osteopath and osteopathic physician?
It is easy to be confused concerning the many “osteo” words. The difference is quite simple. The profession was discovered in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. as “osteopathy.” As mentioned above, this is a combination of the words “bone” and “suffer.” Literally meaning, “bone suffering.” At the time of its founding, the system did not include medical pharmacology so only manual manipulative “medicine” was practiced by its students. However, over time as drugs became better researched and safer to use (early 1900s), osteopathy began incorporating medications and surgery into their treatment. With the osteopathic profession now offering all medical treatment modalities in addition to osteopathic manipulation, the American Osteopathic Association (the legislating body of osteopathic medicine) decided in 1960 to change the name of the profession to “osteopathic medicine” and the name of the practitioners from “osteopath” to “osteopathic physician.” Outside the USA, the terms “osteopath” and “osteopathy” are used to describe D.O.s trained there. Non-North American D.O.s are only instructed in manipulative medicine (osteopathic manipulation) and are NOT trained in pharmacology, surgery, etc. Their practice is limited to osteopathic manipulation. (Similar to chiropractors in the U.S., but not the same) Unfortunately, this adds some confusion to the degree.
The early years of osteopathic medicine were marked by staunch opposition from the allopathic (M.D.) community. There are many reasons for this opposition, one of the biggest being osteopathy initially rejected the hallmark of allopathic treatment: the use of medications. Allopathic practitioners, believing medication to be the only legitimate form of therapy, found osteopathy to be an attack on their livelihood. Worse yet, these osteopathic practitioners were actually succeeding. Thus, osteopathy became competition that needed to be annihilated.
Second, Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. was an early supporter of equal rights for women and minorities. A fascinating example of the dichotomy between the early allopathic and osteopathic perspectives on the acceptance and employment of women can be seen in an event that occurred in 1946: a large city placed the following advertisement in the New York Herald Tribune: “Doctors Wanted: Women Need Not Apply.” In a response to this discrimination, an article in the Forum of Osteopathy appeared entitled: “Doctors Wanted: Women Urged to Apply.” Yet, Dr. Still did not stop at the mere acceptance of women as students, but he employed them as instructors as well. Jenette Bolles, D.O., a graduate of the University of Kansas, was hired to teach anatomy during the school’s second year of classes. She later went on to serve as vice president of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), osteopathic medicine’s equivalent to the American Medical Association.
Dr. Still also instituted a practice of keeping female doctors on staff at the school’s hospital to see female patients who were uncomfortable sharing their gynecological problems with male doctors (For more information on this subject, see Georgia Walter’s 1994 book Women and Osteopathic Medicine: Historical Perspectives). Thus, Dr. Taylor Still challenged the status quo of medicine by his willingness to teach women and minorities to become physicians. And again, these individuals that allopathic medicine considered inferior were actually succeeding.
Today, there is no organized opposition of osteopathic medicine. M.D.s and D.O.s work together as colleagues, and neither are barred from each other’s institutions. Over the years, the two professions have actually grown closer together. The D.O.s have grown closer to M.D.s through their presence in highly specialized medical fields. And the M.D.s have grown closer to D.O.s through their recent push toward primary care and more holistic healing.