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, indicating they have a doctor of medicine degree. If they went to an osteopathic medical school, they’ll have “DO” after their name, meaning they have a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree.
In the United States, there are far more MDs than DOs. However, 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. DOs, on the other hand, 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.
When discussing the differences between these two types of doctors, it’s important to remember that both types are qualified doctors who must meet strict requirements before receiving their medical license.
There are two main philosophies when it comes to medicine, known as 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 to treat illnesses that are usually diagnosed by tests or procedures, such as a complete blood count 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 with the same tools and procedures that students of allopathic medicine do. However, they also learn how to use osteopathic manual medicine (OMM), sometimes called osteopathic manipulative treatment. This 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
It’s important to note that all DOs learn these techniques, but 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:
- four years of medical school after earning a bachelor’s degree
- a residency program lasting one to seven years after completing medical school
The main difference is that DOs must 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. In addition, DOs may take additional classes covering holistic or alternative therapies. Their courses may also focus more on preventive medicine, though this is still covered in allopathic medical schools.
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), but they can choose to take the USMLE as well.
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 when it comes to choosing between an MD or DO. Both are equally qualified to treat you and prescribe medication if you need it. If you’re looking for a more hands-on doctor who might be more open to alternative treatment options, consider seeing a DO. This doesn’t mean that your MD won’t also be open to alternative treatment options as well.
You should also consider your medical needs. According to the American Osteopathic Association, more than half of DOs choose to be primary care doctors. On the other hand, a 2013 study found that only 25.2 percent of MDs became primary care physicians. Instead, MDs tend to specialize in a specific type or field of medicine, such as cardiology or surgery. This means you might have an easier time finding an MD if you’re looking for a specific type of doctor, rather than a general physician.
Regardless of whether you want to see a DO or MD, try to find a doctor who:
- you’re comfortable talking to
- 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 is what 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.