A lot of people wonder how long it takes to become an osteopath and what it takes to be an osteopath? This article is going to describe exactly what the course is like.

You turn up on your first day not quite knowing what to expect. Some students know exactly what an osteopath is, either they have siblings who are osteopaths, maybe a parent, or perhaps they have had treatment from an osteopath themselves. They are good at science, they enjoy working with people, they may come from a biomedical background already. Some are into sports, psychology, nutrition…or some all of the above. In short, students who end up in osteopathy usually share one thing in common: a genuine and innate desire to help people. An immeasurable satisfaction when they do help someone feel better. Empathy can be taught, fortunately, as not all have it naturally. By the end of the course, most will possess the skill to empathise, that is to quite literally be another person for 45 minutes – 1 hour.

First year

The first year of an osteopathy degree is challenging in a different way to the subsequent years. Partly because many think osteopathy is glamorized massaging. This is completely inaccurate as Osteopathy usually uses massage for about a third to a quarter of the treatment time. And the type of massage usually doesn’t have techniques commonly used by beauty masseuses such as effleurage. It is usually deeper, uses levers (which means moving a part of the body to assist in tissue release) and can feel extremely painful.

The first term is psychologically challenging because the student becomes aware of the depth of the course, and the work required. That combined with being in a new city, with new people is very daunting for some.

Osteopathy is a science through and through. But it is also an art, which requires learning a new psychomotor skill, like driving. You are having to think and talk about complex anatomy in a language which you are learning which sounds like another language, to an attractive tutor while performing a movement on a human you have only just met who is in their underwear. And you’re 19, probably hungover and sweating profusely.

An osteopathy student in their first year is learning 12 theoretical modules, going to 2 hour practical lectures 3 times a week with an expectation to be practicing daily. Millions of muscles and nerves to learn, along with their spelling. As mentioned, soft tissue technique (massage) is very different from your Swedish massage in the local parlour. Osteopaths need to know exactly how a technique works on a neurological level. They need to know theory, in terms of neurons and Golgi tendon organs. It takes memory, coupled with passion to learn these things. You need to live, and breathe it if you want to do particularly well. And if like many intelligent people, you want to do well, you will be stressed, as a B is never good enough and getting As takes hard work and ultimately, a personal sacrifice of some sort.

Second year

Second year is where the practical elements of the course become more intense. Clinical practice begins, as well as dissection classes twice a week. By dissection classes, is where a tutor cuts cadavers (the bodies of the deceased) layer by layer to reveal the anatomy beneath the skin and within organs. Internal tissues of the heart, liver, scrotums and much more were examined, as well arteries, nerves, veins and muscles. The smell of formaldehyde (the preservative used to keep the bodies from decaying) is not everyone’s idea of a nice morning after a few in the local Walkabout and many peers feel compelled to sneakily take a picture of a head conserved in a jar. Clinical diagnosis lectures required equipment such as a sphygmomanometer, tuning forks, reflex hammers and ophthalmology sets. Our neurological assessments required us to remember to bring tooth pics and cotton wool, to test the dorsal column and spinothalamic tracts, so the old age, “I’ve forgotten my pen” became “I’ve forgotten my otoscope”.

Public speaking became a challenge for many, especially those who were new to it. It is something that doesn’t get taught in most primary and secondary schools to a large degree. I don’t think many things are taught at primary schools that should be, such as how to arrange your day, desk setups and meditation to name but a few. Filing is also a skill. Colour coded files which are labelled neatly always were an advantage to elite students. Competitiveness isn’t always a bad quality, in fact perhaps it could do women some good to compete for accomplishments, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, instead of for the attention of men.

Written work is also a part of the course which often involves a lot of research, referencing, sleepless nights, dedication and editing. Trawling through research, putting facts into your own words, linking results and conclusions and setting work out well are all skills which constantly progress. Some of the work were small bodies of writing but larger literature reviews on topics such as osteoarthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica and down syndrome is also regularly given- with always an end focus on how osteopathy can help such diseases.

Year 3

Year 3 is where students learn to treat the general public in a way which is more solitary and independent. With tutors coming into the treatments and advising them on how to improve their examinations, treatments and various other aspects of their flourishing skills. Tutors also teach psychological techniques on managing personal life matters away from the clinic, and keep personal life issues at home. Valuable lessons are taught indirectly or directly about working as a team, getting on with people, and managing your work and home life with balance. The indirect teaching is great, because there are always tutors you’re not going to particularly warm to, and the same comes with patients or colleagues when you graduate. University teaches you how to work with these people and get the best out of your practice.

Additional lectures on meditation, taping, cranial osteopathy and yoga are mentioned in the course. And although we did not become experts in these fields, it became a great basis for future courses and qualifications. Paediatrics is taught as a module, but without the practice on little ones regularly, it means that further training is needed to be competent in treating children. Children’s brains and bodies, of course, are undeveloped, which means treatments and completely different, with the need to make things not only a little bit more fun, but a requirement to adapt language and explanations to the child and also a guardian.

The dissertation preparation begins in year 3. A choice of topics is given and students are asked to choose one. It is usually something that warrants research and something that interests the student. Extensive chats with tutors, advice on what to choose then ensues with finally an approval on a title. Research on the background of the topics has to be carried out, and a decision has to be made on whether the research is going to be based on a hypothesis or not. The dissertation is probably the most challenging part of the course, it is long, often frustrating and requires a very high level of time management and organisation skills. An actual experiment has to be designed which will reflect management skills and interpersonal relations.

Year 4

This was the year that was very much about the dissertation and final clinical competence exam. A mock prepares all students for the final. Differential diagnosis was key in these exams, with over 30 potential differentials for each region of pain in the body, it is important to know orthopaedic tests for each region of the body.

After the dissertation experimental results were obtained, analysis of data was made before writing a discussion, including findings with a comparison from all relevant research. After all of this, a presentation has to be given, describing and discussing the results, in a lecture theatre full of students and tutors. All nighters and anxiety often accompany this process. It often helps students to practice the presentation on their peers, as well as watching videos of well known compelling public speakers such as Bill Clinton.

Year 4 usually goes very quickly for people and that’s definitely not because it is more fun. Even the most, and actually usually the most elite of students struggled, probably because they put so much pressure on themselves to get high grades.

Conclusion

You cannot be an osteopath just because you can afford to pay for the course. Many people drop out of the course not just because they realise they were not interested in the topic, but because of the challenging aspect. The course requires dedication, commitment, sacrifice, passion, endurance, patience, positive thinking and excellent coping mechanisms.

It is a thoroughly rewarding course which has moments of complete victory, particularly in clinic when you help someone who is in so much pain, who has seen countless healthcare practitioners before and has come to you at their wits end. That satisfaction cannot go unmentioned and is why a lot of osteopaths say that they have the best job in the world.

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