Overlooked and underplayed: Profession fights to promote itself better
During his “60 Minutes” commentary on April 25, Andy Rooney bemoaned the overspecialization of physicians. Without acknowledging osteopathic physicians, he declared, “We need more medical schools that graduate doctors who specialize in everything and nothing—the whole body, not just one part.”
More vexing, a front-page article on the surge in U.S. medical schools in The New York Times in February failed to recognize the fastest growing element of medical education—osteopathic medical colleges. And in April, an article on the shortage of primary care physicians in The Wall Street Journal neglected to mention the osteopathic medical profession’s focus on family medicine.
Although both the AOA and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) report better press recognition of osteopathic medicine than in the past, oversights and slights persist, compelling the AOA and other osteopathic medical organizations to be vigilant and quick with letters of rebuttal to editors.
“Andy Rooney was describing what osteopathic physicians already do,” notes Pierre Bellicini, the director of communications and marketing for the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) in Erie, Pa. After viewing Rooney’s “What Happened to Family Doctors?” segment, Bellicini helped rally colleagues in the osteopathic medical profession to use Rooney’s remarks as a springboard for educating CBS and other media outlets about the DO difference and the profession’s traditional focus on primary care.
Part of the problem, according to Bellicini, is that layoffs at major newspapers have turned the remaining reporters into jacks-of-all-trades, making it less likely that a reporter covering health care will be aware of osteopathic medicine. In addition, many newspapers, magazines and broadcast news entities have style policies dictating that the generic Dr. title be used for all physicians, without noting their particular degrees. Such policies reinforce the misconception that the MD degree is the only one synonymous with physician.
But the osteopathic medical profession faces even higher hurdles, Bellicini notes. Despite the rapid growth in osteopathic medical schools, MDs still outnumber DOs 10-to-1. And osteopathic physicians are divided over whether to align themselves with or distinguish themselves from allopathic physicians.
The AOA’s 2006-07 president, the late John A. Strosnider, DO, understood this divide. In conceiving the AOA’s Greatness Fund, he envisioned that a significant share of it would be used for a national television advertising campaign, which would allow the AOA to trumpet a specific message about osteopathic medicine to a vast audience. But the recession, which prompted the AOA to suspend fund-raising temporarily, squelched this dream for the time being. Although the Greatness Fund has been reinstated and a Greatness Campaign task force last December recommended budgeting for a pilot ad program in one state, “there is no funding for any advertising initiatives at present,” says Karyn Szurgot, the AOA’s director of communications.
However, Kelli M. Ward, DO, MPH, a family physician from Lake Havasu City, Ariz., contends that advertising should be a funding priority for the AOA. “If the profession is ever going to do national TV advertising, now is the time because of the prominence of primary care in health care reform,” says Dr. Ward, the president of the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association. She notes that nurse practitioners and physician assistants have done a better job than DOs in promoting themselves as the answer to the physician shortage.
Physicians in general tend to be uncomfortable promoting themselves, observes Ned Rosch, JD, the executive director of the Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation (NWOMF), agreeing that some nonphysician clinician groups have been much more aggressive in their marketing initiatives. “Why do people think of chiropractors first rather than DOs when they have backaches?” he asks.
Virginia M. Johnson, DO, is convinced that her profession’s internal identity struggles paralyze promotional initiatives. “Fundamentally, if we don’t get our own house clean—if our graduates don’t care about the heritage of our profession—how can we raise public awareness of osteopathic medicine?” asks Dr. Johnson, who practices neuromusculoskeletal and osteopathic manipulative medicine in Santa Monica, Calif.
“For years the profession has been trying to establish itself as different or distinctive,” says Al Turner, DO, an OMM specialist in Portland, Ore. “In reality, many osteopathic physicians are no different in thought or practice than our allopathic colleagues.”
Dennis J. Dowling, DO, who specializes in OMM in Syosset, N.Y., points out that many of his referred patients don’t even realize when their primary care physicians are DOs. “One key way to promote the profession is for DOs to talk about osteopathic principles with their patients—the importance of looking at the whole person, the interrelationship of structure and function, the body’s inherent healing properties,” says Dr. Dowling, a former president of the American Academy of Osteopathy and a member of the editorial advisory board of JAOA—The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
To educate new patients about the profession, Dr. Turner gives them the AOA’s “What Is a DO?” and “Osteopathic Medicine” brochures as a starting point for deeper discussions on how OMM can contribute to health.