When I was a sophomore in high school, I competed on my school’s high kick and jazz dance team. After a fairly uneventful practice I felt a sharp pain shoot through my back as I went to pick up my bag. By the time I hobbled out to my mom’s car I was in tears and could barely sit down in her passenger seat. Not knowing what to do, my mom drove me to a chiropractor hoping they could give me some relief on such short notice. With a quick exam and a couple adjustments I was able to walk to the car without extreme pain. The next day I followed up with my doctor and she confirmed that I had herniated my L4 disc in my lower spine. My doctor gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and benched me for the rest of the dance season.
Fast-forward a couple years, I herniated the same disc in my back again while studying for my final exams fall semester of my sophomore year of college. After waiting weeks to be seen by a spine specialist, I was horrified when my appointment consisted of a 10 minute interview and I was handed a packet on low back stretches and a prescription for pain medication and muscle relaxants. The thought of being 20 years old and being dependent on drugs to be able to take the stairs or get into my car was daunting. Through a process of trial and error, I found that working with a Physical Therapist and a Chiropractor allowed me to regain my range of motion and slowly build my strength in my core and low back.
As spring semester got underway, a guest speaker came to talk to my Pre-Med Club about osteopathic medicine. I didn’t want to go, assuming osteopathic medicine was a derivative of holistic medicine (its not), but my friends convinced me to go with them. One of the first things the speaker talked about was the power of touch. He referenced the TED talk by Abraham Verghese. The speaker then asked us when the last time a doctor laid a hand on us. I thought back to my appointment at the Spine Center and the nonexistent physical exam, and it was a light bulb moment.
As my sophomore year began winding down, it was time for me to start thinking about where I wanted to apply to medical school. I really liked that osteopathic (D.O.) schools emphasized a “whole body” approach when treating patients. One of the tenants of osteopathic medicine is that the body is a unit, so no matter how specific a patient’s complaint may be we are encouraged to take a step back and look at their overall health first. I felt that this is what had been missing during my appointments with doctors in the past. The more I researched about osteopathic medicine the more I felt that I had found my calling.
Despite all the positive things I found in my research on osteopathic medicine, I was shocked to see negative opinions towards osteopathic physicians on blogs and medical forums. It seemed that there was a lack of education about the difference between M.D. and D.O. People undermined the abilities of those with D.O. degrees because on average, D.O. school’s MCAT scores and GPA requirements are lower than that of their M.D. counterparts. While it is true, D.O. schools tend to have lower acceptance standards, I don’t believe this is a negative thing. During my osteopathic application process I was able to emphasize the experiences that made me passionate about healthcare- my hours volunteering, my job as a surgical care assistant, and my leadership roles on campus- instead of just focusing on my academic performance.
I went back and forth between M.D. and D.O. during the entire application process. I knew in my heart I’d make a better D.O. but I was scared of being seen as “less of a doctor” if I didn’t take the traditional M.D. road. I can’t tell you how many countless talks I had with my parents, my roommates and my advisers on which one I should choose. At the end of the day they all told me the same thing – pick the one that feels right, and I did!
While I am very proud of my decision to become a D.O., I have faced some negativity from others in the field. On more than one occasion, I have had my undergraduate grades or MCAT score questioned, asking why I “wasn’t good enough to get into a ‘real‘ medical school”, and that I would’ve been better off waiting a year and reapplying to an M.D. school. While I don’t have to prove myself to any of the naysayers, I can confidently say I was accepted to both M.D. and D.O. programs and I picked the one that was right for me. As a physician I can still use all the tools afforded to me by modern medicine, but it’s nice knowing I have an extra skill set that allows me alleviate back pain, tension headaches, or nasal congestion without the use of medical equipment or prescriptions.
My only advice to anyone choosing to become an osteopathic physician is to research your options and decide what is best for you. Regardless of which school you attend, you have the ability to become a great physician. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many pages of books you’ve read or how many hours you’ve spent in a lab, a good physician is someone who is kind, empathetic, humble, observant, and compassionate – and those are not skills that can be taught in any classroom.