Osteopathic Medicine and End-of-Life Care

In 1998, there were some 34.5 million Americans age 65 and older. By 2030, that number is expected to double to about 70 million people, or 20 percent of the US total population.

As the average life expectancy in the US increases and the number of older Americans continues to rise, more and more adults, their families, and healthcare professionals are addressing the many issues and decisions surrounding "end-of-life" care and support.

End-of-life care encompasses a wide range of topics, from complementary and conventional acute pain management, to addressing social, cultural, and religious differences and sensitivities. It also involves counseling and other forms of support for patients and their caregivers, discussions about the costs related to end-of-life care, insurance coverage, advance directives for final stages of life care and treatment, and more. Helping Americans understand the choices they have and making life better for those who are dying are important parts of complete and compassionate medical care. This includes not only medical treatments, but responsiveness to the social, spiritual, and ethical needs and sensitivities of patients and their families. In short, the medical community plays a vital role in helping patients and families during the final stages of life.

Osteopathic physicians (DOs) treat the entire person, not just symptoms, and are particularly well-equipped to provide the terminally ill with the types of treatment and guidance that allow them to experience the same quality of care at the end of their lives as they have had throughout their lives. Among the core end-of-life care principles recently adopted by DOs nationwide was "recognizing death as the legitimate end-point to the human life cycle."

"Osteopathic medicine is a comprehensive and hands-on type of medical care that takes into account all facets of a person's state of health," said Paul A. Martin, DO, the 2003-2004 president of the Ohio Osteopathic Association. "It is that unique and compassionate approach to patient care has made DOs the physician of choice for many." Dr. Martin, a family physician in Dayton, said osteopathic medicine's whole-person medical approach to care helps ensure optimal health for patients, not only through prescriptions, medicines, surgery, and other traditional measures, but also by utilizing a unique, distinctive tool called osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).

In 1874, a Missouri physician first described osteopathic medicine "a form of medicine that evolved around the belief that the body has intrinsic healing abilities." Dr. Andrew Taylor Still and his unique medical viewpoint surfaced at a time when traditional medical practices were more often the problem, not the solution. Dr. Still had grown to distrust the quality of traditional medicines, many as harmful as the diseases themselves. As a result, he rejected the use of then-popular medical "cures," such as leeches and mercury.

Today, DOs are involved in every branch of medicine. They care for the uninsured and the underserved. They perform brain surgery and deliver babies. And, they have contributed to the latest medical technology, including gene therapy and DNA coding for diagnostic purposes. Nationwide, there are more than 46,000 DOs who collectively treat more than 100 million patients annually. Approximately 64 percent of all DOs practice in primary care areas, such as family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. In Ohio, which has the fourth largest number of DOs in the nation, following Pennsylvania and Michigan, and Florida, 11 percent of all physicians are DOs. Of family physicians in Ohio, 34 percent are DOs.

The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) in Athens is one of 30 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine in the United States. These colleges are accredited to deliver instruction at 42 teaching locations in 28 states. In the 2014-15 academic year these colleges are educating over 24,600 future physicians – more than 20% of U.S. medical students. Six of the colleges are publicly controlled, 24 are private institutions.