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Osteopathic Medicine

NASA’s Chief Medical Officer Discusses the Astronomic Rise of Osteopathy

Dr. JD Polk

Chief Health and Medical Officer, NASA

Dr. JD Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, is one of an ever-growing number of medical professionals practicing osteopathic medicine. Dr. Polk, who is the former dean of medicine for Des Moines University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, was inspired to become a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) when he was working as a physical therapist’s assistant and an EMT. 

“The ER doctor at the emergency department where I would take patients was a D.O., and  we had a D.O. at the medical center where I was in physical therapy,” Dr. Polk said. “I was very impressed how both of those individuals were very amicable. They always took time out to teach and were very holistic in their approach.”

Observing these D.O.s, Dr. Polk saw how a holistic approach to patient review made for a more complete picture of a patient, and therefore a better diagnosis. 

“The D.O. would ask about their home life, what exercise they got, what diet they had,” Dr. Polk said. “I didn’t see that very often, so that really made an impact for me, to see a very holistic picture in review medicine.”

A space for D.O.s

Working with NASA, Dr. Polk sees a great benefit applying this holistic approach when it comes to space travel. 

“A good example is that the astronauts may have bone loss in microgravity and lose calcium,” he said. “Bone loss itself doesn’t just decrease the bone mass and cause brittle bones, but the calcium actually gets cleared through the kidneys and can put the astronauts at risk for kidney stone. You start to see that all these different organ systems are connected, and how we address them at NASA is multifacted, whether it’s pharmacologic, nutrition, or exercise. That’s a very osteopathic approach.”

Despite the proliferation of osteopathic medical professionals, there are still misconceptions among the general public about the field. 

“I think very often people confuse it with chiropractic, and I don’t view it in that vein at all,” Dr. Polk said. “I view osteopathy as a more holistic practice of medicine, where manual medicine or physical medicine is one component but not the only component.”

Within the medical community, however, osteopathic medicine is increasingly embraced, and the distinctions between osteopathic and allopathic medicines are becoming less rigid. 

“My allopathic colleagues are becoming more holistic and are also starting to look at things like diet and exercise,” Dr. Polk said. “You were considered to be on the fringe if you looked at those things before. Now people are looking at a lot of alternative medicine therapies, anything that will help the patient get better. You can stay with evidence-based medicine and also embrace things that patients need for their psycho-social benefit.” 

Alternative strategies

One major appeal of osteopathy’s holistic approach is alleviating the reliance on prescription medicines. 

“The recent focus on narcotic prescribing and decreasing the risk of people becoming addicted to narcotics has created more allopathic doctors looking at alternative strategies,” Dr. Polk said, “whether that’s looking at physical medicine, acupuncture, exercise, or therapy. All of those things have come together to help pain management strategies with patients that have muscular-skeletal pain.”

The COVID pandemic has made it difficult for many D.O.s whose practices rely on physical touch. 

“We’re at arms-length from the patient now, even in the ICU,” Dr. Polk said. “That’s tough on patients for whom that personal contact is very important, but I think this is a good time for our profession to continue to expand and educate as many people as possible on what osteopathic medicine is. It really lets you know just how impactful touch and relationships and eye contact are, things we take for granted, which maybe on the backside of this pandemic we won’t take for granted.”

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