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Geoffrey Smith walks like a doctor, talks like a doctor, introduces himself as “doctor”, but many of his patients would be puzzled to learn that Smith is not an MD. Smith, the medical director at Rainbow Hospice Care in Jefferson, Wisconsin, who treats patients at the Wound and Edema Centre in Johnson Creek and practices internal medicine in Fort Atkinson, is an osteopathic physician.
Though Smith has been a fixture of his local medical community for the past 24 years, his medical discipline remained unknown to many Jefferson County residents until February, when the Wisconsin College of Osteopathic Medicine announced its plans to develop outside of Jefferson. When the US college opens for classes at the former St. Coletta of Wisconsin campus in 2015, it will be the third medical school in Wisconsin, and the state’s first osteopathic college.
In recent decades, the city of Jefferson has been hit hard by the changing economy, and so when city and county officials heard that the school could add $65 million annually to the local economy, they met the Wisconsin College of Osteopathic Medicine’s announcement with enthusiastic support. However, for many of the area residents, a more basic question remains; what is osteopathic medicine?
According to Dr Smith, ‘I suspect many of them are not aware of that. There are a fair number of people who are not aware of the existence of osteopathic physicians, so sometimes it’s an opportunity to explain to them the differences between the two degrees.’ In the US, those who wish to become physicians have two options; obtaining an MD degree – which is the most well known and popular option – and obtaining a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, carrying the letters DO.
Just like their MD peers, osteopathic physicians complete four years of science and medical coursework followed by a medical residency, and have all the same rights as a medical doctor. They can prescribe drugs, perform surgery and practice any medical specialty. Smith explained, ‘Probably the most noticeable difference was the emphasis on musculoskeletal medicine and the use of osteopathic manipulation. We also [during training] were given some clinical exposure early on. Otherwise, our training is really quite similar in terms of studying the basics of anatomy and physiology, biochemistry and all that sort of thing.’
According to Mike Campea, director of media relations at the American Osteopathic Association – the nation’s largest organisation for osteopathic physicians – one of the unique facets of its training is learning to look at health holistically. ‘They are taught to view the patient as a whole. So they have a good understanding of how the body works as a whole, not just within the body itself, but lifestyle factors,’ he said, adding that this provides a more intimate experience for the patient.