Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Stephen C. Shannon, President of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine

Thasin Jaigirdar
May 4, 2015

Dr. Stephen C. Shannon serves as the President of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), where he is the spokesperson on behalf of the nation’s 31 colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs). He has previously served as Dean of University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Shannon received his BA and MA in American History from University of Maryland, his MPH from Harvard University, and his DO degree from New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine. Dr. Shannon has strong interests in public health and preventative medicine, and in major research areas of clinical outcomes study, health promotion and disease prevention, health professions workforce, rural health, and medical school curriculum.

What was your background and how did you get interested in medicine?
I took a roundabout path to medicine. I started college in engineering before studying physics and astronomy. Eventually I switched to history. When I was at the University of Maryland (UMD) in the 60s and 70s, I started to volunteer at a free clinic in Washington, D.C., with my roommates who were pre-medical students. It was then I realized that I enjoyed working hands-on with people, and that my goal to become a history professor wasn’t necessarily going to satisfy me as much as I originally thought.

At that point I was 30 years old. I became interested in osteopathic medicine because it welcomes individuals from diverse backgrounds pursuing second careers, and because it focuses on hands-on primary care. To prepare for medical school, I took pre-medical courses, studied for the MCAT, and worked as a nursing aid and at a hospital to confirm whether this was the best path for me. Once I began medical school at the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNECOM) – where my wife was also working – I knew I had made the right decision. The curriculum and the science involved were interesting, and the work with patients in a clinical setting was satisfying.

What was it like entering medical school at an older age?
I was 32 – the second-oldest in my class – when I entered UNECOM. Funny enough, it was students in my medical school cohort who were the same age as the people I previously taught. My classmates were eclectic, but I was very comfortable around them. Regardless of age, medical school creates close friendships and tight relationships. Some of my best friends to this day, in fact, are people I met at UNECOM.

How did you grow interested in public health?
I trained in family medicine right out of medical school. This seemed like the right fit because it allowed me to create my own clinical environment. My history background also broadened my perspective in a way that informed my pursuit of medicine. One of my electives involved working with epidemiologists and the Maine Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which gave me the opportunity to examine smoking prevention, disease outbreak, and tuberculosis, helping me better understand the value of the public health perspective.

I realized I wanted to advance population health, so I pursued a preventative medicine residency after my family medicine residency.

What are your goals serving as President of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) and what are some of the biggest challenges you are currently tackling?
AACOM represents all of the colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs) in the United States, which now enroll 25 percent – one in four – of all first-year medical school students nationwide. Osteopathic medicine is a major and growing presence in the U.S. physician workforce population.

I collaborate with leaders in medicine, medical care, and health education on related policies, working on changes that our health care system can implement to improve quality and access. I remain engaged in how to move policy strategies forward on a variety of fronts, and represent our COMs and graduates as part of that effort.

Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the consolidation of the health care system, and the formation of a new type of system are all changes that are reshaping the future of medicine. We are trying to understand what the expansion of health systems means for personalized care and how that will affect the relationships between patients and physicians.

It will take leadership from AACOM and our partners, in addition to engagement with policy workers and other health profession organizations, to develop a solution as we collectively explore how physicians interface with other professions and teams. This involves important transition work that we expect will take about 10-15 more years to complete.

What are two or three changes you would like to see in how the health care system is run in the United States?
From a global perspective, I hope our country recognizes the importance of health care as a fundamental right for all. We should structure not only the delivery of care in a way that everyone can access, but also recognize that the education of health professions to deliver care that’s focused on outcomes and quality is necessary to meet this goal.

Workforce issues related to health professions, improving education, and financing the health care system so that it delivers the best possible care for our population are all critical changes that should take place. Addressing specific factors related to shortages is also essential to improving care.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your career?
The opportunity to work with patients is certainly gratifying. As a physician you become involved with personal care for individuals from many backgrounds, who often are facing life crises. In the process you serve families, deal with issues affecting them, and strive to have a positive impact on their lives.

I remember one woman in particular who had access to very few resources. I helped her discover that she qualified for Medicare, which made it possible for me to properly treat her diabetes. To thank me, she came in to the office one day to give me a bird that she had hand-carved out of wood. It’s wonderful moments like those that make it amazing to be a physician.

Another rewarding experience was being dean of UNECOM, where I was responsible for helping more than 1,000 physicians graduate from our school. In addition to signing their diplomas, I worked with the school to ensure students were appropriately selected, properly educated, and were well prepared to enter the system.

My current role at AACOM as President is certainly among the most gratifying as well. Here I have the honor of serving the osteopathic medical profession and the osteopathic medical education (OME) community in a way that spotlights the unique value of DO physicians, their contributions to patient care, and the outstanding work being done to improve health care every day nationwide.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
I want to address people who are interested in a career in medicine. Sometimes, all you seem to hear about are all of the problems that exist in medicine and the challenges physicians face, but there is simply so much opportunity as a doctor. You can pursue public health, deliver babies, work in underserved areas, etc. The opportunities are endless. You can do so much, change paths, and remain in demand in many locations around the world. Medicine provides a great deal of flexibility.

Follow the pathway and find the specific path that is best for you, and remember that the many rewards of serving patients as a physician far outweigh all the responsibility and hard work that goes along with it.