Most people who are not in medicine don’t realize that there are actually two types of doctors: allopathic (Doctors of Medicine, or M.D.) and osteopathic (Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or D.O) physicians. So MD vs DO… what’s the difference? The short answer is, not much, at least from the average patient’s perspective. In reality, while both learn the same scientific foundations of medical practice, certain elements of their training and philosophy of patient care are what sets them apart.
Doctors of Allopathic Medicine practice the classic, Western medicine which most non-medical people imagine when they think of physicians in the United States. Often critiqued as over-emphasizing treatment through “pills” and having an overly scientific, “hands-off” approach to patient care, MDs are none-the-less the most prevalent type of doctors in America (roughly 67% of actively practicing physicians in 2015 according to the AAMC “2016 Physician Specialty Data Book”. Association of American Medical Colleges.)
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine tend to focus more heavily on the prevention of disease. The belief that all parts of the body are interconnected and work together are at the core of the learning. A hands-on approach to diagnosis and treatment is key. In fact, medical students at osteopathic schools take an average of 200 additional hours of special training in manipulation of the musculoskeletal system. This specialized type of training is known as Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM), and is incorporated throughout the DO curriculum. The focus on OMM is one major difference between MD and DO physicians.
- Have the same undergraduate academic requirements (bachelor’s degree + premed classes + MCAT)
- 4 years of medical school, plus a residency program
- Adhere to the same licensing standards (which are set by each state)
- Are called “Doctor”
- Can specialize in any field of medicine
- Utilize scientifically-accepted methods of diagnosis and treatment
- A higher percentage become specialists
- Take the United States Medical Licensing Exams (USMLE) during med school to get their MD
- Can only attend MD residency programs
- A higher percentage become primary care physicians
- Can attend DO or MD residency programs
- There are fewer DO medical schools than MD medical schools
- Take the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Exams (COMPLEX) during med school to get their DO (Many DO students choose to also take the USMLE exams, as well, so that they can make themselves more easily comparable and competitive with MD applicants for residency programs)
- Advanced training in musculoskeletal manipulation during medical school
Don’t get too hung up on the difference between MD vs DO until you’re at the point of choosing which medical schools to apply to because for the most part, the requirements are the same regardless of which training path you pursue. Both MD and DO medical schools require the same standard 4-year undergraduate degree (BS or BA), pre-requisite classes, MCAT and volunteer/extracurricular activities to get in. The only real difference at the application stage is the application server itself. MDs apply through a system called the American Medical College Application Service (“AMCAS”) and DOs apply through a system called the American Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (“AACOMAS”).
Read the next section of our Definitive Guide to Becoming a Doctor —>