Examining the coverage of DOs in the mainstream media

In mainstream media, physicians are often depicted wearing a white coat, stethoscope, and name badge with the letters “MD.” In contrast, television and news coverage of doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) is notably absent or skewed. As a result, osteopathic medicine is not as well-recognized or well-known as allopathic medicine. One example was seen recently on ABC’s The View, where host Sunny Hostin described DOs as not being medical doctors. This could not be further from the truth.

Despite the fact that DOs work alongside MDs and have gone through similar education and medical training, the media’s portrayal (or lack thereof) of DOs has fostered a limited awareness of them among the general public. This can be dangerous for patient care, especially given the spread of medical misinformation—such as Hostin’s comment—that misrepresents the DO medical degree, leading to false narratives and harmful stigmas.

This article explores why better and more accurate representation of DOs is needed across the media spectrum. It offers a brief overview of the history, philosophy, and science behind osteopathic medicine. Health care professionals are encouraged to share this message with their patients and social networks to raise awareness of the pivotal role DOs play in health care.

A brief history of osteopathic medicine

The osteopathic medical philosophy originated during the late 19th century when Andrew Taylor Still, DO, MD, sought to create an alternative approach to practicing medicine after initially earning his MD. Known as the father of osteopathic medicine, he founded the first DO school, now called the A.T. Still University Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Kirksville, Missouri. His teachings focus on treating the patient as a whole person and not just the disease, as well as seeing patients as a unit of body, mind, and spirit with a goal of preventing injury and illness. These and other DO tenets emphasize the body’s interconnectedness of structure and function along with its self-healing, self-regulation, and maintenance capabilities.

In this way, a more holistic philosophy was formed. It also led to the development of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a hands-on method for diagnosing and treating patients with structural and functional issues of the bones, joints, tissues, and muscles. OMT is unique to the osteopathic medical curriculum, allowing DOs to treat right at their fingertips. In several cases, it can be used in place of medications or other, more invasive options.

Even with its rich history and unique values, osteopathic medicine is often seen as secondary to allopathic medicine in the public eye. Part of this is due to the prevalence of MD physicians. Almost 90 percent of all physicians in the United States are MDs, while over 10 percent are DOs. However, while DOs may be less common, it does not mean they are less than MDs. DOs take the same medical school prerequisites and entrance exams as well as many of the same board exams as MDs. DOs can go into any medical specialty, just like their MD counterparts. They can prescribe medications, perform surgeries, provide injections, and execute other procedures. In residency, DOs and MDs train side by side and often work together in clinical, academic, and administrative settings. Both DOs and MDs practice evidence-based medicine with the highest standard of care.

Lack of positive media perceptions

As the AOA stated in response to the recent comment on The View, “DOs are responsible for the health and well-being of millions. The DO profession has grown 63 percent in the past decade and nearly 300 percent in the last 30 years, making up approximately 11 percent of the physician workforce and 25 percent of all U.S. medical students.” Nonetheless, the historical dominance of allopathic medicine and the overall lack of public awareness about osteopathic medicine further marginalize the DO community.

Mainstream media plays an important role in shaping public opinion and perceptions, which in turn drives the recognition, trust, and confidence patients place in their doctors. The underrepresentation of osteopathic medicine downplays the contributions and capabilities of this well-respected and legitimate branch of health care. Such trends lead to misconceptions regarding the scope and practice of osteopathic medical physicians. This negatively affects patient choices and interactions, despite DOs being fully licensed, qualified, board-certified, and credentialed medical physicians equivalent to MDs.

Those in power trust DOs

There are several prominent DOs who currently hold positions at top government, academic, and medical institutions across the country that society overlooks because their degree is rarely highlighted in the news. President Joe Biden’s physician is Kevin O’Connor, DO, a DO graduate of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYIT-COM). NASA’s chief health and medical officer is J.D. Polk, DO, a DO graduate from the very first osteopathic medical school previously mentioned. Marie Budev, DO, is the medical director of Cleveland Clinic’s world-renowned heart and lung transplant program, and like Dr. O’Connor, is a DO graduate of NYIT-COM.

As calls for diversity, inclusion, and representation in various fields grow, so too does the need for accurate portrayals of osteopathic medicine. Broadcasting channels need to do more to break down stereotypes and foster a comprehensive and educated view of the osteopathic medical philosophy. Efforts must be made to bridge the gaps in understanding between allopathic and osteopathic medicine, showcasing the role of DOs working next to MDs and what it means to have a more holistic approach to caring for patients. From sharing articles like this one to educating patients and working with health organizations and government agencies, DOs and DO medical students have the power to change the narrative.

This, in turn, will empower the general population to make more informed decisions about their health care with confidence and trust in not just the white coat, stethoscope, and MD name badge but also the white coat, stethoscope, and DO name badge.

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.

Alyssa Cole Mixon is a physiatrist. This article originally appeared in The DO.

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