Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH

An Open Letter to First Year Osteopathic Medical Students

Entering a new academic year is always an exciting time for any school’s students, faculty, and administration. As the 2014 academic calendar gets under way, we know that for medical school students in particular, the excitement can also carry a hint of anxiety, as the unknown but greatly anticipated rigors of a difficult medical training curriculum lie in wait.

I know that since the academic year began, you have heard words of welcome, encouragement, advice and orientation to the profession that you are entering from the academic leaders, faculty and advanced students in your schools. I want to take a few moments to share some of the lessons that I learned in the years after I was in your place—yes, a long time ago (32 years)—and the years that followed. I believe they still ring true today:

  1. Recognize Responsibilities: Even as a first year medical student, you are part of the medical profession—the osteopathic medical profession—and you have associated responsibilities. Many of you have, or shortly will, undergo the White Coat Ceremony at your institution, in which you will be formally recognized for the role you have undertaken and the professionalism manifest in the Osteopathic Oath. You will learn the implications of this change as you work through the many experiences that you encounter over the rest of your professional career.
  2. You are Part of the Care Experience: Early on, most of you will begin to find yourselves learning in the clinical setting with patients and families in real-life situations. Even as a student, the professionalism expected of a physician—and all health professionals—applies to you. In fact, you will learn that what you do and say, the respect you give to patients and your colleagues, and the touch you provide is a part of the care experience and a part of the learning needed to advance your competencies in medical school, and throughout your career as an osteopathic physician.
  3. Life-Long Learning: As you go through the curriculum, you will be tasked with academic achievement: successfully completing learning assignments; demonstrating mastery of complex biomedical knowledge; developing the skill to accomplish tasks that must be demonstrated; and collaborating with others to work through problems, understand biological mechanisms, research findings, and challenge assumptions. Your level of knowledge and skills will grow, and you would do well to adopt the attitude of a life-long learner, an attitude that will continue to serve you and your patients throughout your career.
  4. Be Confident, But Not Over-Confident: One of the most important things to learn is to gain self-confidence in your abilities but to not overestimate your own knowledge and expertise. As your levels of understanding of the human body and biology continue to advance, remember that no one can be an expert in everything—especially in a profession as complex as medicine. Always bear in mind not only what you know, but what you do not know.
  5. Envision Your Path Forward: You will encounter many different role models, enabling you to visualize alternative pathways for your own career and future. Use these experiences to refine your own path, zero-in on the specialty/specialties that you think would best fit your skills and passions, and the care settings most in-line with the life of service that you envision. Be on the look-out for mentors—for those who you can engage to develop the kind of relationships that will help you to gain perspective and who will offer advice on the choices that lie before you. Do not lose yourself and your values in the process or fall under the sway of cynicism that you might encounter—but learn from the variety of faculty, physicians, other health professionals—as well as patients—that you encounter along the way.
  6. Learn Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM): Of course your medical school’s curriculum will include significant time devoted to osteopathic manipulative medicine—theory and practice. Take advantage of this time to focus on really learning these skills—to use your hands and palpatory abilities to diagnose and treat the variety of conditions you will encounter as a physician. You will be amazed at what you can do for your patients and so will they. The first two years of your curriculum is an ideal time to learn and refine basic OMM--don’t lose the opportunity to do so.
  7. Be a Self-Starter: Take responsibility for your own learning. Although osteopathic medical schools are recognized by students as having a “family” atmosphere with caring fellow students, faculty and staff who are committed to your success, remember that you need to be responsible for your own progression through the educational and training process that go along with progression through medical school. Of course this can happen in an atmosphere of collaborative and team-based learning, but in the end it is you who will be held responsible for demonstrating the knowledge and skills that empower you to become an osteopathic physician.
  8. Take Part in a Changing Health Care System: Recognize and engage in the changing world of our profession and the health care system. There has perhaps never been a more exciting time to be on the path toward a career in the health care profession, and change is happening rapidly in almost all facets of health care delivery. The increase in the movement toward interprofessionalism and the provision of care as a team, along with the increasing importance of community-based health care delivery, are trends that seem to be aligning the health care system’s recognized needs with the traditional strengths of the osteopathic medical education system and profession. However, innovation in technology, financing and the organization of care delivery are increasingly present and the more you can engage in that change process the better the result will be for patients and for you as an innovative young physician in a changing health care world. There are many ways to engage: through leadership and service (e.g., via your schools student government--represented nationally by AACOM’s Council of Student Government Presidents (COSGP), the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA), or the myriad of clubs and organizations that exist on your campus); through research; through participation in education; and many other ways. Know that being engaged will keep you abreast of the changing world of health care and enable you to participate in its shaping.

You have embarked on a wonderful and fulfilling journey. As you learn the principles and practices of osteopathic medicine, remember that you have joined a cadre of like-minded colleagues and friends who journey with you. Enjoy it. Embrace it.

Welcome to the family.

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September 2014
Vol. 8, No. 9