New Catholic medical school will take holistic approach

Georgetown, Creighton, Loyola of Chicago, St. Louis University — all top-flight Catholic universities that sponsor medical schools. 

Add to that list Marian University in Indianapolis. 

Starting in fall 2013, Marian will open the doors of its College of Osteopathic Medicine, making it the fifth Catholic medical school in the United States and the first to be dedicated to training doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs). 

The first class is expected to include 150 students and will graduate in 2017. 

In doing so, it will launch into a field of study that Marian’s leaders believe has basic principles that resonate well with the Catholic Church’s teachings on the nature of the human person. 

In addition, Marian, in starting its College of Osteopathic Medicine, believes that it is living out the basic call of the Church to promote the common good in society, especially at this time in history. 

But doing all this is not a mission that Marian takes on lightly. 

“Training a physician in scientific knowledge and medical practice is a large task,” said Marian President Daniel Elsener. “Then to integrate morals, ethics and information on the human person in the larger sense is going to be a good-sized challenge for us. We’re going to have to have a lot of interaction with informed bishops, theologians, ethicists. 

Caring for whole person

So, where is the convergence between osteopathic principles and the Catholic faith? 

According to Dr. Paul Evans, the dean of Marian’s developing medical school, it starts with the fundamental Catholic teaching that the human person is a being made up of a unity of body, mind and soul. 

Similarly, an osteopathic physician is trained to see that an illness “is not simply confined to an organ. It is in context with the whole person,” Evans told Our Sunday Visitor. “And that whole person includes the mind, body and spirit. All three are part of the illness and all three are part of the treatment plan.” 

Such a holistic view of the human person and of medicine leads DOs to take into account their patients’ connections to people beyond themselves, another view of the human person emphasized by the Catholic faith. 

“If it’s the mother of a family that has children, are those children going to be affected if the mother’s ill?” Evans asked. “Clearly, the answer is yes, even though those children might not even be in the room with the physician, they’re part of the process of understanding the best treatment path for that patient. We think that’s important.” 

From its beginnings in the late 1800s, osteopathic physicians have valued the role that faith plays in the physical health of their patients. 

The founder of the osteopathic method of health care, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, emphasized this point greatly in his writings. 

At the same time, Evans said that a DO’s approach to patient care is still based on solid scientific research — research that he said is beginning to explore the connections between the soul and the body. 

“There is evidence in the medical literature that says that if you pay attention to these things, you can actually get a better clinical outcome,” Evans said. “There are some fascinating studies about all of those [things], including the use of prayer and having a better clinical outcome for patients who have had prayer versus patients who have not.” 

This resonance between osteopathic principles and the Catholic faith at the level of principles will be embodied in the art and architecture of the future building that will house the medical school on the campus of Marian, which is operated by the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Ind

“When you enter it, the first thing you’ll see is the chapel with a 30-foot cross,” Elsener said. “On the backside, the first thing you’ll see is this mammoth Franciscan cross lit up at night. During the day, you’ll see it outlined in glass. 

“The biggest relief sculpture in the place will be of St. Francis and the friars treating the lepers.” 

Promoting common good

As members of the baby boom generation enter their senior years, the need for primary care physicians in the U.S. will increase. 

This need will be exacerbated by the fact that many primary care physicians are themselves part of that generation and so will soon be retiring. 

That’s where having a Catholic university sponsoring a college of osteopathic medicine comes together to promote the common good of society, a fundamental belief of Catholic social teaching. 

According to the American Osteopathic Association, DOs practice as primary care physicians at a significantly higher rate than their medical doctor counterparts. Not only that, they more often do so in underserved regions, often in rural areas. 

Dr. Angela Wagner, a Catholic osteopathic physician who practices at Westview Hospital in Indianapolis, sees this tendency among her colleagues. 

“We are interested in the whole person,” she told OSV. “I do think we tend towards the humanistic side of medicine and emphasize it so heavily. I think that may be why we do go into more rural areas.” 

Another way to promote the common good in health care is by emphasizing strong medical ethics, something Wagner is confident that Marian’s new medical school will do well. 

“I think there will be a lot of opportunities [at Marian] for discussions about the integration of ethics,” said Wagner, who treats many elderly patients and has a growing interest in end-of-life care. “I think we can do a really good job of emphasizing the way we treat vulnerable populations, whether it be elderly patients in nursing homes or people that are terminally ill and helping them grasp the different ethical dilemmas and situations.” 

Elsener sees the ethical and spiritual components of Marian’s College of Osteopathic Medicine as a crucial contribution that its Catholic identity can make to the health care community. 

“You could make the case that a highly trained physician, that the lack of a holistic education is actually detrimental to humanity,” Elsener said. “To prayerfully reflect on your profession every day, before every operation, before you visit people, at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day — that’s pretty important.” 

Sean Gallagher writes from Indiana. For more about Marian University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, visit