Growth of osteopathic medicine offers hope for rural populations

The percentage of doctors of osteopathic medicine continues to rise. That could be good news for rural communities suffering from a shortage of primary care.

Physicians who hold a degree in osteopathic medicine make up about 9% of the current population of licensed physicians, but enrollment trends indicate that number will grow over the next few years, according to Health Affairs Blog post. The establishment of a single accreditation system for all residency programs in 2020 will further drive the trend, ensuring M.D.s and D.O.s meet identical training standards.

Graduates with osteopathic degrees could help counter the nation’s ongoing primary care gap. Medical schools have historically harbored a cynical view of primary care, to the point where some elite medical schools don’t even bother with departments of family medicine. Students actively seeking a career in primary care commonly experience a less-than-encouraging academic atmosphere.

But schools offering osteopathic degrees tend to benefit underserved rural areas and physicians with osteopathic degrees also enter primary care practices more frequently than physicians with medical degrees, according to the post.

As impressive as the numbers are within the osteopathic community, the relatively small overall percentage of physicians graduating with osteopathic degrees could mitigate gains on a larger scale. Still, given the urgency of the healthcare system’s needs, any positive momentum may be worth celebrating.

“Given the doctor of osteopathic medicine workforce’s higher likelihood of practicing in rural communities and of pursuing careers in primary care, doctors of osteopathic medicine are on track to play an increasingly important role in ensuring access to care nationwide, including for our most vulnerable populations,” the authors wrote.