Programs in osteopathic medicine prepare people to work as doctors. Students learn to diagnose and treat diseases and disorders. They learn to adjust the connective tissues in the human body. They also learn to counsel and instruct patients. Doctors of osteopathy (D.O.'s) may prepare to work in general practice or may choose to specialize. To specialize, they choose a medical residency program other than general or family practice.
Have you ever heard the expression "to not be able to see the forest for the trees"? This expression refers to an inability to look at the big picture. Because Dr. Andrew Taylor Still believed that this problem existed in conventional medicine, he started the practice of osteopathy in the late 19th century.
He developed this system of medicine as an alternative to the more conventional practice of what's known as allopathic medicine, which is what you're probably more familiar with today. Instead of focusing only on the parts of the body that are unhealthy, as allopathic doctors do, osteopathic doctors emphasize a whole-body approach. This means that they evaluate the overall health of their patients, using home and work environments as factors. This approach also emphasizes a body's natural ability to heal itself.
As a student in an osteopathic medical program, you learn many of the same things that a student in a conventional medical program (that is, one that leads to an M.D. or a doctor of medicine degree) does. You learn about the different systems of the body, such as our hormone systems (endocrinology), our heart (cardiology), and our kidneys (nephrology). You also study clinical sciences such as psychiatry, radiology, and pathology.
In addition, however, you study more extensively the muscle and skeleton systems and the ways nerves, muscles, and bones interconnect. This is because osteopathy believes that the body's structure influences its function. If something is wrong with its structure, it will not work properly.
Like M.D.'s, a D.O. can choose to specialize in a particular field such as gerontology or cardiology. However, osteopathic medical schools tend to focus on training students to be primary care physicians. This goes back to the whole-body approach of osteopathic medicine.
Osteopathy is a growing field. In fact, the number of D.O.'s grew almost twice as fast as the number of M.D.'s in the 1990s.
There are about 15 accredited osteopathic medical schools in the U.S. You earn a D.O., which typically takes about eight years of full-time study after high school. This includes the approximate four years that you need to get a bachelor's degree.