From a Dream to a DO: The Joseph Johnson Story

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oseph Johnson is a third-year osteopathic medical student at the Lincoln DeBusk Memorial University College of Osteopathic Medicine (LMU-DCOM) where he serves as class body president for the 2017 graduating class of DO students. He also serves as a board member and student editor of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) publication, The New Physician, as well as a contributing author for various other medical publications, including a 2014 article, "Rural Appalachia: A Medical Mission in Our Own Backyard," in the medical student online magazine In Training, and his article, "Ode to DO Students," published in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (JAOA). In addition to his already immense list of academic and extracurricular responsibilities, Johnson is also a husband, a father, and an underrepresented minority (URM) osteopathic medical student leader. 

The Beginning

In a podcast interview with Lisa M. Cole, MBA, former Vice President of Communications and Marketing with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), Johnson outlines his background and paints for listeners a picture of big dreams with a humble backdrop.

Johnson grew up in a rural town in the South and lived a fairly typical life common for small-town citizens in America. In his community, he notes, having a job and a family are generally valued more than seeking a higher education; Johnson and his wife were married as teenagers and he began working right out of high school. 

After three years of factory work, Johnson took a job working in a nursing home in his area. Here, he began to see the inner workings of the health care industry, particularly those aspects that were affecting his medically-underserved community, and the seeds of his dream were planted. He didn't realize it at the time, but this was his first step toward a future career as a physician.  

After being a member of the workforce for eight years, Johnson's wife encouraged him to follow his dream of attending medical school—something he had been talking about for years—and decided she would also go back to school to become a nurse practitioner. They knew it wouldn't be easy, especially with both of them unable to work and juggling school with the responsibilities that come with raising a child... but chasing dreams rarely is. 

The DO Difference

One of the most remarkable elements of Johnson's story is how he chose the path to a career in osteopathic medicine. While preparing to apply to medical school, he spoke with mentors and did plenty of his own research where he discovered osteopathic medicine as an option for medical education. He read volumes of information on the practice of osteopathic medicine and the beliefs of osteopathic physicians (DOs). He decided to apply to several DO schools as well as MD schools.

Johnson was accepted to several MD and DO schools, and thus began the exercise of deciding where to begin his medical career. Through a competitive, state-sponsored scholarship for individuals who plan to specialize in rural family medicine, Johnson was to be awarded full tuition to any of the number of medical schools he was accepted to... except for the DO schools. For osteopathic institutions, the state scholarship would only cover half of his tuition. Despite his low-income background and the financial hardship that lay ahead with both he and his wife going to school full time, Johnson accepted a seat in LMU-DCOM's class of 2017. Johnson began classes in the fall of 2014.

In his AACOM interview, Johnson cites a number of reasons why he chose to pursue his medical degree at an osteopathic institution, the first of which is osteopathic medicine's focus on serving medically-underserved urban and rural areas. This foundational element of osteopathic medical practice is something that hit home to Johnson because of his upbringing in a small, rural, medically-underserved community.

Johnson also mentions that the method of treating the whole patient instead of just their physical presentations is another element of osteopathic medicine that drew him to the field. The whole-patient approach to care and the close patient-physician relationships encouraged through osteopathic medical education, Johnson notes, are more aligned with his belief of how medicine should be practiced. He also touches upon osteopathic medicine's deep roots in the promotion of diversity as another factor that drew him to osteopathic medicine, briefly citing the abolitionary work of Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, the founding father of osteopathic medicine.

From a Dream to a DO

Now in his third year at LMU-DCOM, Johnson is able to look back at his time in medical school so far and reflect upon the biggest hurdles he has encountered as well as the challenges he still faces on his journey. In his interview with AACOM, Johnson discusses three major challenges:

  • Attending school as a non-traditional student
  • Coming from a low-income background
  • Being an underrepresented minority student

"Being a nontraditional student was the easiest of the three obstacles to overcome," Johnson said in the interview.

Balancing family life with school is something that many medical students don't have to worry about, but for those that do, many state that these responsibilities serve as reminders of their purpose and help them get through some of the toughest struggles of the rigorous educational demands of their medical training. Johnson also states that with his age comes maturity and skills, such as time-management, which serve him well in his studies.

The scariest of the three, Johnson notes, was definitely the fiscal element of school.

"Coming from a poor family, you always remember those fears of going to the refrigerator or cupboard and there being no food in there... But knowing that now you're responsible for it and you don't want your child to grow up that way."

The last hurdle Johnson discusses is being a URM medical student. In the interview he speaks to a time when he was overlooked for a medical student discount at a restaurant that two young white patrons paying before him both received without question. A mistake he believes was unintentional, yet undoubtedly the product of an ingrained connection between being a medical student and being an ethnicity other than African-American. This subconscious bias is what Johnson cites as the biggest battle he has had to face as a URM medical student.

Giving Back

While his background comprises many elements that could be viewed as disadvantages, Johnson often emphasizes how his roots are, in fact, his strongest assets—shaping a unique perspective that he believes will allow him to better connect with, and understand the unique needs of, patients in the rural communities he is committed to serving in the future. 

At the close of the interview, Johnson was asked what advice he would give to prospective minority students hoping to become osteopathic physicians. Johnson's wisdom was essentially this: recognize your value as a minority—minority patients tend to make up more than 50 percent of minority physicians' practices because of a comfort level that these individuals feel with someone of their own race—and use adversity as fuel to keep you moving, keep you learning, and keep you succeeding. 

Listen to the complete podcast version of
Joseph Johnson's inspirational interview.


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July/August 2015
Vol. 9, No. 7/8