The Osteopaths Strike Back: The Rise of DOs in the Last 25 Years

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Silly title aside, the osteopathic profession has seen some serious growth in the last few decades. 

    The Osteopathic Force (of Andrew Taylor Still) Awakens

    Osteopathic medicine was formally founded in 1892 when Andrew Taylor Still, frustrated with the way medicine was practiced at the time, opened the first osteopathic medical school in Kirksville, MO. A.T. Still’s new approach was built on a great appreciation for the interrelation of the body’s form and function. It also took a more scientific approach (for the time) to diagnosis and treatment.

    From it’s inception, the osteopathic profession grew, but it grew slowly. Suppressed by the AMA and the medical establishment, only about 400 DOs graduated each year until around 1970 when expansion began.

    The Return of the Osteopaths

    It wasn’t until the federal government, all 50 states, and the AMA each fully accepted the profession in the 1970s that the osteopathic field really began to expand. The field saw one wave of major growth from 1970 to 1990 when more schools were able to open without restriction, and is still in the midst of a second wave, with the number of osteopathic graduates rising from 1,527 in 1990 to 5,346 in 2016. This means that, between 1990 and 2016, the number of DO graduates has increased by 250%! From 2010 to 2016, the number of DO graduates per year rose by 42.48%. By contrast, the 18,938 students who graduated from US MD schools in 2016 represented only a 12.5% increase since 2010.

    Today, there are 33 osteopathic medical schools at 48 locations, with 16 new schools or locations opening in the last 5 years alone. The current total enrollment in DO schools is 27,512, with one in four US medical students enrolled in an osteopathic school.

    Outside of the university, there are currently 102,137 total practicing Doctors of Osteopathy in the US (compared to 27,146 in 1986).

    Osteopathy: The Phantom Profession

    Considering this extreme growth in the last 25 years, it is imperative that the medical community recognize Osteopathy as a legitimate force (pun intended). Leadership in medical education needs to address the specific needs of osteopathic learning. No longer should study resources be USMLE-specific with separate OMM portions “tacked on”. The growing market of DO students demands the development of more comprehensive resources. Even outside of educational settings, DOs need to market themselves as different from their MD counterparts, but equally valuable. This has begun with the “Doctors that DO” campaign sponsored by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA — the osteopathic governing body). 

    With the single accreditation of graduate medical education under the ACGME, Osteopaths will begin to be considered equal to MDs. However, DOs will need to speak up to maintain a distinct identity.

    A New Hope (for DOs)

    Osteopaths offer a unique philosophy of care that is ingrained during their unique training. While many DOs don’t necessarily embrace their second last name, I think they should be proud of their titles and education. DOs offer a new perspective to healthcare, and their numbers are on the rise.