Expanding international pathways to becoming a DO


How one SpartanDO student and his team are reducing barriers for Canadians pursuing osteopathic medicine

All of the world’s DOs are currently trained in the United States, and Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine is one of few osteopathic medical schools that historically accept Canadian students into its program.

For Canadian students like Philip van Huigenbos, OMS-IV, who deeply resonate with the osteopathic tenets, pursuing a career in medicine proved difficult. Originally from Vancouver, Van Huigenbos was first introduced to the field of osteopathic medicine in undergraduate school and was immediately intrigued by the holistic principles combined with the evidence-based, manipulative medicine approach. Because Canada does not have any colleges of osteopathic medicine, he began researching schools that would sponsor him in the U.S.

Van Huigenbos was pleased to discover that MSUCOM has a Canadian Initiative Program, which reserves seats for Canadian students to study at MSUCOM and offers a scholarship to reduce the international tuition closer to the in-state rate. In 2019, he matriculated into the class of 2023 and in 2020, he discovered the Canadian Osteopathic Medical Student Association (COMSA).

Founded in 2011, COMSA aims to spread awareness on the practice of osteopathic medicine throughout Canada, as well as support and represent Canadian citizens studying at American osteopathic medical schools. The organization assists Canadian students with the application process, hosts seminars to expand the profession, and advocates for Canadian citizens seeking a DO degree. COMSA also lobbies regulatory bodies for unrestricted licensure and title protections of Canadian DO physicians.

Now serving as co-vice president of COMSA, Van Huigenbos is proud of the ways he and the executive board have reduced barriers for Canadian students to get into American osteopathic medical schools and explore opportunities to practice as a DO after graduation. In the past year, COMSA has focused on formalizing its role to better understand the needs of Canadian students, and has partnered with the Canadian Osteopathic Association (COA) to merge student membership with professional membership.

COMSA also focuses efforts on eliminating the financial barrier for studying in the U.S., which has become especially difficult with recent economic changes and exchange rates. Additionally, they help applicants through the student visa process and sponsorship.

A focal point of Van Huigenbos’ work is continuing to build relationships with the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA) and the American Osteopathic Association’s (AOA) Bureau of International Osteopathic Medicine (BIOM). With the collaboration of these organizations, he and his team are able to break down barriers for students coming to study in the U.S., and students going back to Canada once they graduate from an American medical school.

Recent regulation changes have complicated DO graduates’ decision in returning to Canada for residency. Due to Canada’s limited number of residency opportunities available for international medical graduates, the success rate of DO graduates applying to a Canadian residency was low, which led to a steep drop-off of Canadians matching in their native country.

Shortly after that change, regulation also passed that changed the timing of the Canadian residency match to be after the U.S. residency match, rather than before, so students were not able to fall back onto a U.S. program if they did not match in Canada. Since that change was implemented, there have been zero Canadian DO graduates to have matched into a residency program in Canada, according to COMSA.

Because all residency programs are now accredited under the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), completing a residency in the U.S. and practicing in Canada is not as challenging as it once was, which is encouraging for the future of DO growth internationally, says Van Huigenbos.

Recognizing that not all Canadian students who come to the U.S. want to return to Canada to practice, COMSA also works to ensure there are no undue burdens for those individuals, especially around work visas.

The next goal COMSA is embarking on is revamping its website with resources for Canadian students on board exams, residencies, work visas and more. The ongoing challenge is updating the resources with quickly evolving laws and regulations. “It’s a marathon that we’re continuing to run,” says Van Huigenbos.

Van Huigenbos — who is currently submitting applications for family medicine residencies in the U.S. — encourages non-international students to stay in touch with COMSA and other organizations working to expand international pathways to an osteopathic medical education. He suggests following the organizations on social media, attending events and connecting with organizers to be an advocate.

“For students native to the U.S., know that your Canadian peers and other international students are a long way from home and may not have family here. Be a good friend and good classmate,” says Van Huigenbos.

He also encourages his fellow classmates to pursue leadership opportunities: “When opportunities arise — in leadership, mentorship, volunteering, tutoring — I try to say ‘yes.’ You may think it could lead to burnout or stress, but for me, it’s led to an interesting time in medical school and relationships with incredible people at MSUCOM and beyond.”

Explore more of COMSA’s mission and stay in touch with news at studentdo.ca or by following them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.