Fifty years ago, the doctors of osteopathy who graduated from A.T. Still University struggled to get hospitals to hire them.
Medical doctors who earned degrees from traditional medical schools were uninterested in working with those who took a different approach to treating patients. So doctors from A.T. Still moved in droves to rural places such as Arizona, where their skills were sorely needed and the medical establishment was in fledgling stages.
The 115-year-old Missouri medical school, a private nonprofit college, has itself now officially taken up residence in the state.
On Monday, A.T. Still’s school of osteopathic medicine opened its doors to its first class of 107 aspiring doctors in east Mesa.
University officials said the medical school aims to help reduce the state’s doctor shortage. Osteopathic medical students here will begin their clinical rotations, often called residencies, in their second year of classes, a year before traditional medical students.
Students will complete those rotations at one of 11 health centers in poor, rural parts of Arizona.
The school will teach its medical students how to treat the “whole” patient. That approach calls on doctors to consider the patient’s mental state and spirituality before deciding how to treat their ailment.
“If someone’s depressed in their spirit, then their immune system’s also depressed, so we know there’s a linkage,” said James J. McGovern, the university’s president. “We study that very carefully.”
The education that medical students receive at A.T. Still, as far as content, will be very similar to what students receive at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, said Dr. Craig Phelps, the osteopathy school’s provost. The difference will be in how they receive it.
For example, a traditional medical school will have students take one class on anatomy and another on pharmacology. A.T. Still, on the other hand, will teach students a whole section of the body at once, from the names for body parts to treatment for various conditions.
“They’ll get all the anatomy. But it’ll be put all in a way that the mind will remember it in a more detailed way,” Phelps said, “as opposed to just learning it with no connection to the actual clinical presentation of the patient.”
Andrew Taylor Still founded the Kirksville, Mo., university in 1892 to teach others the field of medicine that he conceived. At the time, osteopathy shunned drugs in favor of manually adjusting the body’s anatomy to correct imperfections thought to cause illness.
Over the years, osteopathy has embraced much of traditional medicine’s approach to treating patients. However, it preaches that treating patients requires an understanding of more than the body’s mechanics.
Students will learn about those mechanics while treating simulated patients. Classrooms are set up in the same manner as doctor’s offices.
A number of the rooms have lifelike mechanical patients with pulses students can feel. Professors control the rubber models with computers and can simulate 160 different conditions, giving students experience with health emergencies in a classroom before they encounter them in an emergency room.
“If they make mistakes, they don’t hurt any patients,” said Phelps, who also is a team physician for the Phoenix Suns.
The Mesa school’s curriculum is similar to that of the Kirksville college, but it’s not identical. The original college is actually revising its curriculum based on work being done in Mesa, said Julie McNabb, assistant dean of academic affairs at Kirksville.
Before the students’ medical education began Monday, Dr. Douglas Wood, the school’s dean, urged them to spend time every day thinking about how they diagnose their patients.
Even the most skilled and experienced doctor can miss key information patients give them about ailments, Wood said.
The medical students must be prepared to dedicate themselves to their patients, he said.
“As of today, your lives have changed,” Wood added.