ALBANY, Ga. -- The doctors are in, but they're not your average physicians.
Dr. Thomas Bozzuto of Phoebe Wound Care & Hyperbaric said many of his patients either don't notice or completely ignore the DO that follows his name on his business card.
"I get asked once in a while what it means and if people aren't familiar with osteopathic medicine some of them ask if I'm a real doctor," said Bozzuto, who is one of several doctors of osteopathic medicine in Albany.
Dr. Melinda Greenfield of Albany Dermatology Clinic said she too has been asked about the two letters and their meaning.
"I even had one patient tell me once, 'Well if I knew you weren't a real doctor, then I wouldn't have come here,'" said the dermatologist.
The fact is, both Bozzuto and Greenfield and many of the DOs in Albany can provide patients with the same type of care as medical doctors in the area, if not more.
"We are alike but different," Bozzuto said of the difference between DOs and MDs. "We (DOs) can do all the specialties, write prescriptions, perform surgery and typically anything a medical doctor can do."
The main difference between MDs and DOs is that doctors of osteopathic medicine receive extra training in the musculoskeletal system, which make up the muscles and bones of a person, and are specially trained to perform osteopathic manipulations on patients.
"We take the same core curriculum in medical school as an MD," said Greenfield. "The philosophy and approach to treatment is the main difference. We are taught to look at a patient as a whole person instead of just treating an illness."
Bozzuto said his training in osteopathic manipulation has helped him in his work at Phoebe Wound Care and Hyperbaric.
"Even if you go into a specialty the training goes with you," said the doctor. "I like to say my education in osteopathic medicine taught me to take care of the patient as a whole, rather than take care of the hole in the patient."
This approach to general wellness has always been a core part of osteopathic medicine since its inception in 1874 with its founder, Andrew Taylor Still.
Still, a surgeon with the U.S. Army during the Civil War, became dissatisfied with orthodox medical practices of his day and after the death of three of his children from spinal meningitis Still believed that the current medical practices were ineffective and harmful.
Bozzuto said Still was looking for a humane way to treat patients and promote the body to heal itself rather than utilizing the somewhat brutal practices of blood-letting that were popular back then.
Still developed a philosophy of medicine that focused on the unity of all body parts. Still identified the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health. He recognized the body's ability to heal itself and stressed preventive medicine, eating properly and keeping fit.
Bozzuto said DOs look at the body as more than a system of organs and look at how a patient's habits and environment might factor into illness.
"It's not just saying, "Oh you have diabetes, here is some insulin," it is about educating patients on proper health and wellness and promoting healthy eating habits that will prevent illness from returning," said the doctor.
According to information from the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, DOs are one of the fastest growing segments of health care professionals in the United States. At the current rate of growth, it is estimated that at least 100,000 osteopathic physicians will be in active medical practice by the year 2020.
That's good news for this region said Greenfield.
"Georgia is going to be an area that will face shortages in primary care physicians, which is what most osteopathic physicians are," said the dermatologist. "Obama's healthcare plan is going to have more people covered by insurance, but we are not going to have enough doctors to treat them."
Experts expect a phenomenal physician shortage by the year 2020, especially in the South, where the population continues to rise while the number of new physicians graduating from medical schools continue to stay constant.
Bozzuto said the state is in luck though, because his alma mater, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has recently built a 19-acre branch campus in Suwanee. The campus offers all four years of the osteopathic medical curriculum leading to the conferral of the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree.
"The goal of the campus is to recruit students from Georgia and other states in the South to become doctors and hopefully stay in this region and practice," said Greenfield who teaches a class at the campus.
The dermatologist said the combination of an osteopathic medical school in Georgia along with the profession's philosophy of promoting wellness of the whole person is a plus for rural areas like Albany.
"I want people to recognize that we are here and we are in the state and a lot more will be in the region soon," said Greenfield.
Currently there are more than 70,000 practicing DOs in the nation who receive their training at 25 osteopathic colleges in 31 locations in the United States.