Global health

Osteopathic physicians and international osteopaths find common ground in Finland

During a trip to Finland for an Osteopathic International Alliance meeting, I learned not only about the global osteopathic profession but also about myself.

Maybe it is the stereotypical American in me, but prior to this past weekend’s events, I could not point to Finland if you gave me a globe or map. Now, however embarrassing that may or may not be, I was lucky enough to represent the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA) and the United States as a senior Board of Trustees member and osteopathic medical student in Finland in June for the Osteopathic International Alliance’s (OIA) 2022 annual meeting. It was the OIA and this meeting that emphasized, then solidified, the value and community of international osteopathic medicine that I am so thankful to be a member of.

Kipis means “cheers” in Finnish, and there were a lot of rightful toasts and celebrations after hearing about the growth of the osteopathic profession around the globe. The Osteopathic International Alliance is an organization representing the global osteopathic profession. Its mission is to ensure high standards for safe and effective health care from osteopaths and osteopathic physicians. In other words, this alliance collaborates on the shared goals of standardizing national osteopathic medicine training and practice rights to benefit patient safety and public health. It consists of 72 member organizations and their leadership from 21 different countries.

Scott Landman, OMS III

Student involvement is a priority for the OIA. The OIA, especially Jan Wilcox, DO, and Rebecca Giusti, DO, made it very clear to the student representatives that involvement and collaboration with the future of osteopathic medicine are just as vital to its ongoing efforts to support osteopathic medicine around the globe.

Osteopathic physicians and osteopaths: Similarities and differences

During the conference, Charles Hunt, DO (UK), and Dawn Carnes, DO (UK), spoke about the OIA’s 2020 Survey of Global Osteopathic Profession. This report provided statistical data about the growth of the osteopathic profession and osteopathy internationally:

  • An estimated 196,861 clinicians are delivering osteopathic care worldwide in 46 countries.
  • Since 2013, there have been significant increases in the profession:
    • osteopathic physicians by 34% and
    • osteopaths by 84%.

You may be a little confused – (as I was). What is the difference between an osteopath and an osteopathic physician? The students discussed this in detail when comparing our scope of practice, licensing, and diagnosing ability throughout the world.

Scott Landman, OMS III (far left), with osteopathy students from France, the UK, and Finland at the OIA conference.

Osteopaths and osteopathic physicians practice utilizing the same guiding philosophies from A.T. Still, DO, MD, the founder of osteopathic medicine, with minor adjustments in the scope of practice. Both are trained in osteopathic manipulative medicine/treatment. Both professions believe in the five tenets of osteopathic medicine and use these to guide patient treatment. The difference is that the U.S., in addition to a few other countries, has a model focused within the medical system as a doctorate program. In contrast, many other countries have master’s or bachelor’s in osteopathic medicine and do not receive training in practicing traditional medicine.

After reviewing the difference between an “osteopath” and an “osteopathic physician,” here are a few more interesting statistics I came across:

  • Osteopaths are statutorily recognized as health care professionals in osteopathic manipulative medicine only and regulated by law in 13 countries.
  • Osteopathy is either not recognized or regulated by governmental statutes in 22 countries, where registration is voluntary.
  • There are 79,302 osteopaths:
    • 45,093 are statutorily regulated and registered osteopaths.
    • 34,207 osteopaths are not statutorily regulated and registered but may be registered with voluntary registering organizations.
  • For osteopathic treatment modalities, the most common were:
    • soft tissue manipulation
    • muscle energy technique
    • spinal manipulative technique
    • articulation/mobilization
    • visceral techniques
    • osteopathy in the cranial field
    • functional technique
    • strain-counter-strain
    • myofascial release
    • advice about exercise/physical activity and lifestyle

Recognition and regulation are still needed in some countries, and additional osteopathic research may be beneficial to educate international governing bodies on reported outcomes of care for those with a regulated osteopath system.

Additional conference highlights

During the conference, we learned about some important OIA initiatives, including a toolkit they developed for educating the public about osteopathic medicine. With 200 million treatments administered worldwide in the past year, it is vital to have an organization standardize practice collaboratively. You can also find resources on “how to train an osteopath” on the OIA website. This makes standardization easier and provides a model for licensure for those countries that do not yet have an established licensure system.

A recurring theme and mission of the OIA is the effort to increase standardization and regulation of the osteopathic profession in different countries. Amie Steele, DO (AU), presented health technology assessments (HTAs) to introduce in one’s respective country to teach listeners about methodologies to increase the visibility of osteopathy within the realm of public health in their country.

OIA Chair and AOA Past President Boyd Buser, DO, spoke about another global goal: to update the World Health Organization (WHO) benchmarks for osteopathy training. In 2018, the OIA was accepted as an official partner of the WHO, and the 2010 OIA benchmarks had an official advocacy avenue within the organization. The OIA is planning to present updated benchmarks that it implemented in 2021 to the WHO for adoption. This is the ultimate “battle for regulation” as osteopaths aim to have an updated, more robust seat at the table. This shows OIA’s strength and outreach on behalf of the global osteopathic profession.

Finding my people

All the students who attended the conference agreed: Osteopathic medicine is stronger when we unite to advocate for ourselves. Further involvement with the OIA and future collaboration between student groups are two primary goals for us.

During the conference, I felt as if I “found my people.” It was incredibly natural to lend a hand to another student because we had the bond of osteopathy. My new friends and I appreciate the experience, and we believe that the future of osteopathy is strong wherever we are worldwide. I am proud to be an osteopathic medical student with a new understanding of the importance of a lifetime of listening, learning and global collaboration. 

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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