An osteopath is a medical professional who practices osteopathy. In the United States, osteopaths are governed by the American Osteopathic Association, and they graduate with a doctorate in osteopathy (DO) which is equivalent to an MD degree. Outside the United States, osteopaths experience different levels of regulation, and they often practice complementary medicine, without prescribing rights, the ability to perform surgery, or other medical privileges. Depending on nationality and personal tastes, some people may view an osteopathic doctor as a primary care physician, or as a supplementary healthcare provider.
The discipline was founded in the late 1800s by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, who was concerned about the direction of modern medicine. He felt that medical practice focused too much on drugs and treating specific symptoms, rather than the body as a whole and its natural desire to remain healthy. He focused particularly on the musculoskeletal system, believing that strong joints, tendons, bones, and muscles would build a strong body. In 1892, he founded the first school of osteopathy.
Several things differentiate an osteopath from a conventional doctor. Osteopaths place a lot of value on viewing the body as an interconnected whole, rather than an assortment of parts. They also focus on preventative care, including maintaining strong bones. In addition to prescribing medication, performing surgery, and engaging in other traditional medical practice, an osteopath also practices Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). OMT involves using the hands to examine the body, looking for areas of weakness and joint issues, and manipulating the body gently as needed to treat these issues.
The qualification process for an American osteopath is much like that for a regular doctor, involving extensive schooling, board examinations, and continuing education to retain credentials. An osteopath also chooses a particular field of interest, usually in primary care such as pediatrics, general practice, obstetrics and gynecology, or a similar field. Outside of the United States, osteopaths tend to focus more on natural treatments, since they do not have the same certifications or privileges that doctors do. They also practice OMT extensively, along with craniosacral manipulation, and both believe in the value of preventative medicine and treatments aimed at reducing problems with the bones and joints.
Patients who would like to work with an osteopathic doctor can generally find one with the assistance of trade organizations, which maintain lists of members in good standing. Patients may also want to consider asking around in their communities to see if anyone knows or or already works with a good osteopath. As is the case with seeking out any sort of professional service from a stranger, patients should not be afraid to ask for qualifications, or to ask questions about the doctor's philosophy and approach to treatment.