Total enrollment at the nation’s osteopathic medical colleges now tops 20,600, a 6.5 percent increase over last year’s (2010) more than 19,000 students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM).

Today, more than 20 percent of new U.S. medical students are attending osteopathic medical schools, a percentage that will continue to increase as new campuses are developed or complete all four years of enrollment, and as established and existing colleges complete previously approved increases in their class sizes. This year, some schools increased their incoming class sizes, one branch campus and one remote teaching location opened, and three new colleges of osteopathic medicine are in development.

Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP) opened a new campus in Lebanon, Oregon, on July 30, 2011 with 107 students.

COMP-Northwest is addressing the need for more primary care physicians in the Pacific Northwest, said COMP Dean Clinton Adams, DO.

Historically, the average entering age of a DO medical student has been older than allopathic students.

“It seems as though these personalities are more comfortable with and attracted to primary care because of their experience in dealing more closely with people on a personal basis,” Adams said. “The osteopathic curriculum is more like the allopathic curriculum, but the continued primary care emphasis may contribute to a higher percentage of DO students selecting primary care residencies.”

COMP in Pomona, Calif., has an enrollment of 233 new students for 2011-12, compared to 228 incoming students in 2010-11. But factoring in COMP-Northwest’s 107 students, COMP as a whole increased to 340 incoming students.

This fall, more than 5,620 new students enrolled at one of the nation’s 26 colleges of osteopathic medicine, a 3.7 percent increase over last year’s incoming class.

The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine welcomed its inaugural class of 162 students at its new branch Carolinas Campus (VCOM-CC) in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Enrollment is expected to rise in the coming years, with three colleges of osteopathic medicine in development stages: Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, Campbell University College of Osteopathic Medicine (North Carolina) and Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine (Indiana). Each school plans to enroll entering classes of more than 100 students.

Growth in the number of osteopathic medical school graduates will help mitigate looming physician shortages, especially in the critical primary care area. A variety of reports predict primary care physician deficits that will range from 20,000 to 46,000 by 2020-2025, and all physician shortages of 120,000 to 160,000. With large numbers of new osteopathic physicians continuing to pursue primary care careers, AACOM is hopeful that the osteopathic medical profession can help the nation avert a primary care crisis.

“Each and every new osteopathic physician will be needed to help meet our nation’s increasing health care demands,” said Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH, President and CEO, American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. “I am convinced that osteopathic physicians will make a difference in mitigating physician shortages and improving our health care system.”