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James McGovern '66

Blazing a New Trail for an Aging Population

The head of the world’s first medical school for osteopathy, James McGovern ’66 wants his students to study healthy aging, not just illness, and to become involved community members as well as medical professionals. He’s spearheading a new intergenerational Wellness Trail that integrates students from Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, part of A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, into the town of Kirksville, Mo. McGovern, co-author with his wife, Rene, of Your Healer Within: A Unified Field Theory for Healthcare (Fenestra Books, 2003), talks about his philosophy of prevention for an aging population, and how public health policy may be failing our seniors.

Q. You’re careful to describe Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine as a medical school. Are osteopaths medical doctors?

A. Osteopathy is a mainstream medical profession, and a doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) gets the same training as an M.D. The real difference is that an M.D. focuses mainly on the body. A D.O. is trained to consider mind, body, and spirit. The United States now has about 55,000 D.O.s, certified in all 50 states.

Q. What inspired the Wellness Trail?

A. Kirksville College acquired 100 acres next to a student dorm to build a 50-room senior assisted-living center. A trail with benches and chinning bars was there, because we encourage students to take study breaks and attend to their bodies, too. Seeing that path, we asked: ‘Shouldn’t seniors be able to at least go out for a walk?’ So we designed a mile-long, cement-paved trail, accessible to wheelchairs and walkers.

Q. As a visible symbol of your focus on prevention, how does the Wellness Trail introduce people to osteopathy and healthier living?

A. I think the “whole person concept” of health care is becoming better known. We’re teaching people to breathe, relax, take a walk. At our new assisted living center, two D.O.s have first-floor offices. Residents and townspeople are invited to come in and simply say, ‘I’m not feeling well.’

Q. You’ve been a physics professor, university vice president, and state director of health finance. What led you into medical education?

A. While I was vice president at Case Western Reserve University, an executive recruiter contacted me. I didn’t know anything about osteopathy. But I decided to go on the interview, and was very impressed with what I learned. The big appeal was osteopathy’s emphasis on patient-doctor interaction. I feel it’s important for a doctor to have a personal relationship with a patient.

Q. How have your ideas about American medicine changed?

A. At RPI, studying natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology had an impact. In a sense that gave me a big picture about laws of nature, and an optimism that some principles of nature could be found to help treat people. Later, as Illinois director of health finance, I saw a lot of unnecessary and very high expenses for drugs. They were overused. I think it’s a scandal the way American medicine has sunk to spending billions of dollars on pills and surgery, operating far too quickly and throwing all kinds of chemicals into people.

Q. What are your primary concerns about health issues related to the aging population?

A. The federal government is assuming that the Medicare Prescription Drug Program is the answer to elderly health needs. One of its problems is that it reverses what doctors have been learning. Now, if a medication isn’t working well, the dose is simply raised, or the patient shifted to another drug. This is a risk for elderly people—physical defense mechanisms grow less adaptable with age, so drugs become increasingly harmful with higher doses or switches to other drugs. Many medications also have major side effects especially harmful to older people. Instead of a focus on drugs, what we need are natural approaches like exercise, nutrition, humor, and meaning, which have positive “byproducts” and better results as different, natural remedies are added. These habits are cumulatively positive, while drugs are cumulatively negative. If you use exercise and nutrition, you get twice the benefit.

Q. How are your degree programs changing to meet these new needs?

A. We have recently completed a three-credit geriatrics course that all our students are required to take. We know from medical, psychological, and sociological research that the systems of the body, mind, and spirit change with advancing decades. Our students are taught what to expect in each age group, and how to analyze and treat all three systems accordingly. Our doctors learn that using logic to explain the need for good nutrition will just drive a patient into his or her defense system. You have to reach their values and attitudes, understand their motivation, and help them develop healthier behavior and a new structure.

Q. What role do you see for osteopathy in the coming years?

A. We have a medical revolution going on, and osteopathy is part of it. The body itself has the best pharmacy. It has endorphins and other natural aids. We’re arrogant to think we can come up with chemicals better than our own body’s. Sometimes our D.O.s can solve a headache by touch. And sometimes all you need is good nutrition and exercise so the body can do its work.

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