By Tiffany Wright
For years, Karen Steele, D.O., has traveled the world, blazing trails for the osteopathic profession. Recently, the retired WVSOM professor emerita and former associate dean of osteopathic medical education set a milestone by becoming the first registered osteopathic physician in South Africa.
Steele’s registration opens the door for American Trained Osteopathic Physicians (ATOPs) to initiate registration, if they wish to move to South Africa to practice medicine full-time.
“I was delighted,” Steele said upon learning the official news. “The process has taken two years, five trips and many presentations in South Africa by Ms. Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer and myself, the endorsement of WVSOM, the encouragement of the AOA and the support of the Anir Foundation. Since others had tried before us without success, I believe that to get this accomplished in two years is pretty amazing.”
In South Africa, osteopaths are limited in practice and considered part of the allied health group classification, not physicians. Until now, they could not practice as medical doctors — even on a volunteer basis. During Steele’s trips to South Africa, she educated the local medical community about ATOPs and osteopathic manipulative techniques.
In many other countries, “D.O.” stands for “Diplomat of Osteopathy,” not “Doctor,” Steele explained. Wanting to change the status of osteopathic physicians in South Africa, she began the process to become a fully registered physician so she could volunteer as a physician.
She and Biesemeyer met with officials in the Western Cape, home to the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor and where the majority of the population is medically underserved. They met with government leaders, including the national minister of health, who were supportive of the idea of a fully licensed American osteopathic physician providing care.
The decision rested in the hands of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), the licensing board for all medical practitioners in the country. South Africa is an area rich with local culture and values. It was understood that persuading the HPCSA to allow a U.S. osteopathic physician full practice rights would not happen instantly.
“It took 80 years for osteopathic physicians to be recognized in every state in the U.S. and we were trying to convince the South African government to recognize the American-trained osteopathic physician model in just two years,” said Biesemeyer, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), one of WVSOM’s learning specialists and coordinator for WVSOM’s International Studies program.
Some of that convincing came with the help of the Anir Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Biesemeyer and her daughter that promotes cultural understanding between people in the Americas, the United Kingdom and Southern and Central African nations through volunteer opportunities.
For Steele, receiving registration in South Africa isn’t just another milestone in her osteopathic career — its real value is in being able to help the underserved, whether providing education to caregivers or providing medical care to the orphaned children she has come to know over the years.
“My goal is to be able to go into the orphanages and into the cities and teach caregivers to do simple manipulative techniques in order to have better outcomes,” she said. “Access to medical care is difficult for a huge part of the community there, especially in townships where the very poor live. For me to be able to teach caregivers simple techniques could make a huge difference in the health of the people.”
During visits to South Africa, she spent a majority of her time working with children in the Baphumelele Orphanage. There she saw neglected and orphaned children affected by HIV/AIDS/TB and with a variety of autoimmune diseases.
“I thought if we could help the children’s immune systems deal with the infections they were having then we could change, in some small way, their outcomes,” she said.
In South Africa, Steele is known fondly as “Dr. Karen,” a friend and protector to those she treats.
The American Osteopathic Association has stated that international medicine is an important part of physician training. Thanks to Steele’s accomplishment, WVSOM is ahead of the curve, Biesemeyer added.
Steele is humbled by the opportunity she’s been granted, but how did Steele achieve what others could not?
“I’ve been called a gentle bulldozer and that’s how I worked all my life,” she said. “The world I lived in when I was going to medical school in the early ‘70s is not the one students experience now. There are many differences (for the better) and I’m glad for that.”
Volunteer registration in South Africa is applicable for one year. Steele is in the process of extending her registration so she can return to Baphumelele Orphanage in February 2014. Currently, three ATOPs from WVSOM are applying for volunteer status in South Africa, as well as a D.O. practicing in Virginia.