Osteopathic Physicians


Exploring this Job

Consider visiting an osteopathic medical college. Tours are often available and can give you extra insight into necessary training and the ways in which life at an osteopathic medical school differs from a "regular" one. If you don't live close enough to an osteopathic college to visit, spend time reviewing their Web sites to gather more information.

Check into after-school or summer jobs at your local hospital or medical center. Any job that exposes you to the care of patients is a good first step. Contact the American Osteopathic Association and ask for a list of osteopaths in your area. Talk to as many people as you can, and don't be afraid to ask questions.

The Job

Osteopathic and orthodox medicine both use the scientific knowledge of anatomy and physiology, as well as clinical methods of investigation. In this respect, they have a similar language. The greatest differences, however, lie in the way patients are evaluated and in the approach to treatment. As a general rule, the orthodox medical approach focuses on the end result of the problem: the illness. Treatments seek to repair the imbalance presented by the illness through the prescription of drugs or by surgery. In contrast, osteopaths focus on tracing the changes in a patient's ability to function that have occurred over a period of time. This is done to understand the chain of events that have altered the relationship between structure and function, resulting in the patient's present complaint. The primary aim of treatment is to remove the obstacles within a patient's body that are preventing the natural self-healing process from occurring. It's a subtle difference, but important.

Like most physicians, osteopaths spend much of their day seeing patients in a clinic or hospital setting. Their specialty, of course, may take them to other venues, such as nursing homes or sports arenas.

The osteopath's first task in evaluating a new patient is trying to understand the cause of the problem that the patient presents. It may sound simple, but it can be very complex. Diagnosis is a fluid art, and treatment programs are reviewed with each patient visit, changing as the patient begins to respond. To arrive at an appropriate diagnosis, osteopaths record and analyze the history of prior treatment. This report will likely be greatly detailed, since osteopaths consider the whole body. Since structure and function are interdependent, and all the parts of the body connect with each other, osteopaths ask questions that appear to have little relevance to the problem at hand. It is precisely that concern for seemingly irrelevant details, coupled with manipulative therapy, which distinguishes the osteopath from the more conventional Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)

One technique that assists in the correct evaluation of patient problems is palpation, a manual means of diagnosis and determination, whereby sensory information is received through the fingers and hands. Along with careful listening and observation, osteopaths use palpation to assess healthy tissue and identify structural problems or painful areas in a patient's body.

The osteopath differs from a traditional M.D., or allopathic physician, in one other major aspect: treatment options. For the osteopath, treatment centers on what are called osteopathic lesions, which are functional disturbances in the body that may involve muscles, joints, and other body systems. These lesions are created by mechanical and physiological reactions in the body to various types of trauma. In osteopathy, open, unhindered, and balanced movement is the most important factor in health. The lack of balance plays a major role in the onset of disease and illness. Thus, the many varied techniques employed by osteopaths are concerned primarily with reestablishing normal mobility and removing or reducing the underlying lesions.

The techniques available to treat osteopathic lesions are nearly limitless. Because osteopaths consider the whole body when determining the proper treatment, each application of a particular technique will be unique. Similar lesions in different patients will have different origins and will have been caused by different sorts of forces or events. Thorough evaluation of the patient helps guide osteopaths in discerning what sorts of techniques will be most helpful.