What Is the Difference Between a DO Physician and an MD?

Comparing Osteopathic and Allopathic Medical Training

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Most of us are familiar with the medical designation MD (or Doctor of Medicine) which we have seen countless times on office doors, medical directories, and even TV shows like Marcus Welby, MD, Trapper John, MD, and Doogie Howser, MD.

A designation that you may be less familiar with is DO (or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). While some people may think they are more-or-less the same, it's important that you understand the distinctions when choosing a primary care or specialist physician.

Comparing Allopathic and Osteopathic Medicine

Doctors who have an MD degree practice allopathic medicine, a term coined in the early 19th century to differentiate homeopathy from science-based medicine.

By contrast, doctors with a DO designation practice osteopathic medicine, a medical discipline that emphasizes the treatment of illnesses through the manipulation and massage of the bones, joints, and muscles. While some people will describe it as "alternative medicine," within the context of medical certification it's not entirely true.

In the end, a physician who is has a DO degree is held to the same standards as an MD. Both attend four years of medical school and complete their training in the same residency programs. Doctors who want to be board certified in a specialty will take similar tests for certification, regardless of whether of their designation.

Osteopathic Medicine Versus Osteopathy

The philosophy behind osteopathic medicine is centered around a "whole person" approach to care, emphasizing wellness and prevention as opposed to just treating an illness.

While this was considered a major difference in the past, MD programs now actively embrace the approach, educating doctors to look beyond the symptoms and to integrate mind and body in a more holistic and thoughtful way. Traditionally, doctors of osteopathic medicine have pursued careers in family medicine.

In recent years, that has changed with graduates now pursuing a wider range of medical and surgical specialties.

Physicians with DO degrees should not be confused with non-medical osteopaths who have no medical background and are trained solely in body manipulation. They not only lack the skills to treat medical conditions, they are entirely barred from using the DO designation in the U.S.

How Osteopathic Medical Training Differs

Medical students wanting to attain a DO degree are educated in osteopathic medical treatment (OMT), a practice of body manipulation similar to that used by chiropractors. Medical and OMT training is conducted simultaneously over four years, after which a board examination must be passed to become a fully licensed physician.

Medical students wanting to acquire an MD degree will also go through four years of medical training and face board certification, as well.

To become a licensed physician, medical students may take one of two exams: the COMLEX exam, which only DO students take, or the USMLE, which can be taken either by a DO or MD student. Side by side, the degrees are virtually identical, allowing those carrying the distinction to practice the full scope of medicine in the U.S. and 64 other countries.

The same cannot be said for physicians who have attained their DO degrees abroad. These degrees are not recognized in the U.S.

A Word From Verywell

By and large, the selection of a doctor depends as much on experience and expertise as it does the medical degree hanging on the wall. In the end, it’s a highly subjective choice for which a DO or MD degree offers little distinction.

It's important to also realize that being board certified in osteopathic medicine doesn't mean that the doctor will incorporate OMT into the practice; some don't. For the most part, an MD and DO will approach a case in more or less the manner, reviewing patient history, symptoms, and lab tests before offering a treatment plan.

A DO may, perhaps, offer an adjustment if the situation calls for it, but it wouldn't be offered as an "alternative" treatment but rather as an adjunct to standardly prescribed medical practices.

In the end, you should choose a doctor based on proficiency, a willingness to answer your questions, and a shared vision of the goals you aim to achieve. While there may be variations in how a DO or MD approach treatment, they are generally incidental and shouldn’t color your decision as to which one might be "better" than the other.

Source:

American Osteopathic Association. "What Is DO?" Chicago, Illinois; 2017.

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