Osteopathic medicine is one of the fastest-growing fields in healthcare, but the public’s understanding of it remains limited.
To help bridge this gap, Timothy Tsai, a fourth-year medical student at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine — New Jersey’s only osteopathic degree program — created a free, open, online course to help potential doctors, patients, and their family members better understand the field. The course, believed to be the only online course of its kind in the country, launched two months ago and quickly attracted 1,200 pupils.
“It isn’t just about being the first to create a course like this,” said Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, dean of the school. “The team’s commitment to producing a program that is both comprehensive and, at the same time accessible to anyone, is a significant achievement that will help to advance the reputation of our school and of the osteopathic profession.”
Osteopathic physicians take a holistic approach to wellness and disease prevention; they take extra training in the musculoskeletal system and the use of joint manipulation. The field developed in the mid-19th century as an alternative to the use of arsenic, leaches, and other treatments common at the time.
Tsai, a New Jersey native, said that, in addition to introducing the practice to a wider audience, he hoped the online forum would help students involved in the Rowan program gain new perspectives. He also hoped it would help them connect and interact with other classmates in ways they couldn’t in lecture halls.
The course, created by the medical school tech team and presented by Rowan faculty, has four modules: an introduction to the field, a history of osteopathic medicine, basics on some of the joint manipulation techniques that are commonly used, and a segment on clinical applications. No previous coursework or experience is required, and students can pace themselves, although most complete each module in less than four hours.
The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) has accredited 33 graduate degree programs nationwide; these schools are expected to produce more than 5,600 graduates this year. This is an increase of nearly 300 percent in the past two decades. Osteopathic physicians are found in all 50 states, with the highest concentration in the Midwest, Texas, and California. But nationwide, they represent just 11 percent of all physicians.
While osteopathic practitioners originally focused on noninvasive, nonsurgical techniques and strengthening the body’s immune system, doctors of osteopathic medicine, or DOs, now work side by side with MDs, a representative for the AOA explained. Graduates of osteopathic programs are eligible to train as obstetricians, radiologists, surgeons, and other specialists, alongside MDs.
In New Jersey, osteopathic training dates back to 1976, when the Stratford School of Osteopathic Medicine was created by the state legislature in an effort to forge a unified system of graduate medical education as part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. When UMDNJ was restructured in 2012, the Stratford school became part of Rowan. (Rowan is one of just a few schools in the country to offer graduate degrees to both MDs and DOs.)
Tsai got the idea for the course from his experience with other online education programs, known as MOOCs, or massive open online courses. He was also motivated by his work with Synapse, a student group founded to educate and inspire students and encourage innovation in healthcare. Given the demands of his coursework, the program took a few years to come to fruition, and Tsai credited colleagues, faculty, and assistance from other Rowan programs for making it happen.
Tsai said he would have been happy to sign up a few hundred pupils. “But when we got to 500, I was kind of blown away,” he recalled. “Just having a free course like this is a new away of disseminating information and a new way of people learning.”
“Even if you are not interested in (osteopathic medicine) as your career, the course can be a great resource for learning exactly what an osteopathic physician does and how osteopathic manipulative treatment can help patients,” he said.