MDs and DOs are both licensed professionals able to treat your illnesses or injuries. The differences are subtle, but DOs may be more appropriate if you’re interested in holistic or alternative therapies.
You can tell which type of degree a doctor has by the letters after their name.
If they went to a traditional (allopathic) medical school, they’ll have “MD” after their name. This indicates they have a doctor of medicine degree. If they went to an osteopathic medical school, they’ll have “DO” after their name. This means they have a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree.
There are far more MDs than DOs in the United States, but more and more medical students are becoming DOs.
The differences between MDs and DOs are often subtle. MDs generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication.
On the other hand, DOs tend to focus on whole-body healing, with or without traditional medication. They generally have a stronger holistic approach and have been trained with additional hours of hands-on techniques. Some people claim that DOs put more emphasis on disease prevention, but prevention plays an important role in the work of both.
It’s important to remember that both types are qualified doctors who must meet strict requirements before receiving their medical licenses.
There are two main philosophies when it comes to medicine: Allopathy and osteopathy.
MDs learn allopathy in medical school. It’s the more traditional of the two philosophies, and it’s what many people consider “modern medicine.”
Allopathic medicine emphasizes using medications and techniques like surgery or radiation to treat illnesses. These illnesses are usually diagnosed with the help of tests or procedures such as a complete blood count (CBC) or X-ray.
Most medical schools teach allopathic medicine.
DOs learn osteopathy while earning their degree. Compared to allopathy, it focuses more on treating the body as a whole instead of treating specific conditions.
Students of osteopathic medicine learn how to evaluate people using the same tools and procedures as students of allopathic medicine. However, they also learn how to use osteopathic manual medicine (OMM), sometimes called osteopathic manipulative treatment.
OMM involves using the hands to diagnose, treat, or prevent injuries or illnesses. Examples of OMM during a physical exam include:
- stretching out a limb, such as unfolding an arm
- applying gentle pressure or resistance to specific areas
- feeling someone’s bones, joints, organs, or other structures through their skin
There are more than 500 different OMM techniques. During a physical exam, a DO can use the visual and tactile findings from OMM to identify potential issues with:
- connective tissue
- blood vessels
Once you receive a diagnosis, it’s possible that OMM may be a part of your treatment plan as well. However, it’s important to note that while all DOs learn OMM techniques as a part of their training, not every DO uses them in their medical practice.
Both DOs and MDs learn how to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases and injuries. As a result, they receive much of the same training, including:
- 4 years of medical school after earning a bachelor’s degree
- 1 year as an intern prior to starting a residency
- a residency program lasting up to 7 years
It’s good to point out that while most states have several medical schools, not all states have colleges of osteopathic medicine. A list of the different osteopathic medicine programs in the U.S. can be found on the website of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM).
The main difference in the training of DOs versus MDs is that DOs complete an additional 200 hours of coursework. This extra training focuses on bones, muscles, and nerves and how they affect the body’s overall health. It also includes learning different OMM techniques to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses.
As noted earlier, the DO philosophy focuses on a whole-body approach. This means the body is treated as one interconnected self-sustaining and self-healing unit. Part of the DO’s job is to help the individuals in their care strive toward optimal body structure, function, and healing.
As such, DO courses may focus more on preventive medicine. Indeed, preventive care is a big part of a DO’s practice. It may be as simple as promoting fitness and a healthy diet or could also involve using medications, an example being PrEP for HIV prevention.
While DOs do focus heavily on preventive care, preventive medicine is still covered in allopathic medical schools and practiced by MDs.
In addition, DOs may take additional classes covering complementary or alternative therapies, such as massage, acupressure, or herbal medicines. A
Both types of doctors must pass a national test before becoming licensed to practice medicine.
MDs must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). DOs must take the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX).
In addition to taking the COMLEX, some DOs may choose to take the USMLE as well. One reason that they may choose to do this is to help them stand out when applying for a residency, particularly if they’re interested in a competitive specialty.
These tests generally cover the same material but often phrase questions differently. The COMLEX also contains additional questions about OMM.
There’s no right answer to choosing between an MD or DO. Both are equally qualified to treat you and prescribe medication if needed.
If you’re looking for a more hands-on doctor who might be more open to more holistic or alternative treatment options, consider seeing a DO. However, this does not mean that your MD will not also be open to these types of treatment options as well.
Most doctors are still MDs. For example, a 2020 census of licensed physicians by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) found that 90.1% of doctors in the United States have an MD.
The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) also reports that only 11% of doctors in the U.S. are DOs. However, the number of people interested in becoming a DO is growing. In fact, there has been an 81% increase in the total number of DOs and osteopathic medical students over the past decade.
Primary care is still the most common area of focus for both MDs and DOs. This includes the areas:
- internal medicine
- family medicine and general practice
However, both types of doctors can choose to specialize as well. In fact, there’s overlap between MDs and DOs in some of the most common specialties, which include:
- emergency medicine
- obstetrics and gynecology
Regardless of whether you want to see a DO or MD, try to find a doctor who:
- you’re comfortable talking with
- you trust and believe is knowledgeable, compassionate, and well-trained
- listens to you
- gives you the time you need to ask any questions you have
- fits well with your needs, such as:
- being a preferred sex
- having extended appointment hours
- belonging to your health plan
Ultimately, being comfortable and having a good trusting relationship with your doctor matters most when choosing a doctor.
Licensed MDs and DOs are equally qualified to take care of your medical needs, and choosing one over the other is simply a matter of your personal preference.