Medical School Profile: Western University of Health Sciences

This school teaches an alternative approach to medicine, emphasizing prevention.

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At Western University of Health Sciences, part of the emphasis is on learning how to not only treat diseases, but also to prevent them.
At Western University of Health Sciences, part of the emphasis is on learning how to not only treat diseases, but also to prevent them.

Many applicants debate whether to consider allopathic (M.D.) or osteopathic (D.O.) medical programs to pursue their careers in medicine. As it's important to make an informed decision about an academic path that will affect at least four years of your life—not to mention your pocketbook—we thought it would be helpful to profile a different type of medical school, since many premedical students may not be aware of this alternative path to a medical career.

The College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., is a well known program that offers opportunities for training at multiple clinical training sites throughout southern California. (Osteopathic medicine promotes therapeutic techniques that emphasize prevention, in addition to teaching allopathic subjects and techniques.) These affiliations provide students with a broad clinical exposure, which prepares them for the clinical grind of residency training.

[Learn how to decide between an M.D. and a D.O.]

Speaking with students, alumni, and faculty, some key points about the Western experience emerged:

1. Interdisciplinary curriculum: In addition to highlighting the emphasis in Western's curriculum on case-based learning, students, alumni, and faculty also praised its efforts to help students acclimate to working with an interprofessional team of allied health professionals. That team includes physician assistant students, veterinary medicine students, as well as students from other specialties with whom aspiring osteopaths will need to interact effectively in the patients' best interests.

Western places a strong emphasis, members of its community say, on collaboration, effective communication, and empathy for patients. "We may have an applicant with a 3.8 GPA and a 35 MCAT, and they may not get in, because they may not be able to communicate well with families and colleagues, or advocate for their patients," says Michelle Emmert, Western's assistant dean for student affairs.

"As a whole, Western emphasizes approaching patients from a holistic standpoint," Emmert added.

[Read about how medical schools embrace alternative medicine.]

2. Proactive prevention: Western graduates frequently say that studying medicine through an osteopathic lens instills a focus on primary prevention, or preventing diseases from occurring in the first place, rather than waiting until patients develop a condition.

Western graduate Michael Carragher, who practices osteopathic medicine, says he didn't want to practice medicine by just following formulas. "At Western, I was able to be proactive in prevention," he says.

A key component of Carragher's West Hollywood, Calif.-based private practice is "working with the interdisciplinary model, having seen that it leads to better patient outcomes."

As a postbaccalaureate volunteer at a local hospital in New York, Carragher knew that the osteopathic philosophy was something he considered very important. "I felt that competition was not cut-throat, and students helped each other succeed, which was my experience at Western," he says.

[Find out if a postbaccalaureate medical program is right for you.]

3. Flexible curriculum: All the sources interviewed said that Western offered multiple clinical opportunities for self-motivated students, both in the United States and abroad. Additionally, they said, students have the opportunity to tailor their fourth-year curriculum to pursue specific interests.

One graduate, who is currently a child psychiatry fellow at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, cautions that Western "sometimes requires students to take the initiative in seeking out rotations related to their interests at other large medical centers." And it can sometimes be difficult to arrange these opportunities, says the graduate, who asked not to be named.

But many students do manage to handle their own curriculum in their fourth year, according to Carragher. "[Western] gave me a lot of flexibility to arrange clinical experiences in different settings and different states," he says.

Some graduates also note that Western can be slightly more socially conservative than other medical schools, but that overall it afforded them the opportunities and the flexibility that they needed during their time in medical school, with support from the administration.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.