There Are 2 Types of Medical Doctors in the US?

A moment of gratitude for all of the amazing and selfless healthcare providers and staff for their support during this pandemic. For what you do, thank you.

A doctor, aka a physician, is a person trained and licensed to practice medicine; a person having a Doctor of Medicine (M.D. or M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O. or D.O.) degree. They’re both doctors. Still, allopathic (or M.D) doctors, and osteopathic (or D.O.) doctors have several differences that you should be aware of.

With that in mind, I want to remind you that regardless of the two letters that come after a name, a great physician is simply one that does the best for their patients. At the end of the day, the two letters behind your name don’t matter.

I’m sharing this article to inform you of the differences between the two types of medical schools and doctor degrees in the U.S., so you can better decide which fits you.

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What are Osteopathic Doctors?

Osteopathy was started in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, an American doctor. He called this practice of medicine “osteopathy” because he reasoned that the osteon, or bone, was the primary originator of many pathological conditions. Since this origin, the doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or D.O. degree, has always been less common than its Allopathic counterpart.

Today, it constitutes approximately 7% of all practicing physicians in the U.S. While less popular than allopathic M.D. schools, the popularity of D.O. schools has been on the rise. There are now over 30 D.O. schools in the U.S., compared to over 140 MD schools, constituting approximately 20% of all enrolled medical students.

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I want to clarify the distinction between the American doctors of osteopathic medicine, and European osteopaths, as they both call themselves D.O.s. European osteopaths have a diploma in osteopathy. They treat the musculoskeletal system: they cannot prescribe medications, and they cannot perform surgery.

American D.O.s practice modern medicine, just as an M.D. would. They also treat the musculoskeletal system with Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine or Osteopathic Manipulative Therapy (OMM or OMT, for short).

Myth: DOs are chiropractors that can prescribe medication.

This belief is not true. By definition, chiropractors locate a misalignment more or less around the spine, and then they treat those structures. Chiropractors are not licensed physicians: they can’t prescribe medication, and they cannot perform surgery or practice in any other field of medicine. D.O.s are fully licensed physicians that have the same medical privileges that M.D.s do. 

This is not to undermine the work of chiropractors. I want to clear up the myth that although D.O.s use a hands-on technique to alleviate pain and restore the body’s function, they are not chiropractors that can prescribe medication.

What’s the difference between D.O. and M.D. Doctors?

There are two essential things to consider: the curriculum and the exams.

Curriculum

Osteopathic curricula are nearly identical to their allopathic counterpart. Like allopathic medical schools, the first two pre-clinical years are focused on building a core foundation of medicine in the classroom. The latter two years constitute medical students’ clerkships, with training in similar specialties to allopathic medical schools, including Internal Medicine, OBGYN, Pediatrics, Family Medicine, Surgery, Psychiatry, etc.

The only curricular difference between the two schools is that D.O.s have a few additional courses to be trained in OMT. D.O. schools provide 300 to 500 hours in the study of hands-on manual medicine, referred to as Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM). The thought is that this body manipulation can bring about systemic healing.

That being said, OMM is not always the first line of treatment, and some D.O.s might not use it at all. For example, a D.O. that goes into radiology is likely not going to use OMM, compared to a D.O. that went into Sports Medicine who might use OMM on their patients regularly.

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Exams

To get into an osteopathic medical school, you still have to take the MCAT. However, in osteopathic medical school, you take the COMLEX exam rather than the USMLE. D.O. students can also opt to take the USMLE step exams if they desire to enter an M.D. residency after completing medical school.

Another thing to consider is the competitiveness of exam scores in getting into medical school. D.O. program matriculants have lower average MCAT scores and GPAs. If your statistics are not that competitive for traditional allopathic medical schools, osteopathic medical schools are a great option.

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Wait, so DO and MD are basically the same thing?

Yup. The two degrees are more similar than they are different. D.O. doctors have equivalent rights, privileges, and responsibilities as those with more traditional M.D. And while less popular than allopathic M.D. schools, the popularity of D.O. schools has been on the rise.

Before 2020, there were two accreditation councils: ACGME and AOA. D.O.s could apply to programs governed by either committee, whereas M.D.s could only apply to ACGME accredited programs. (Aka, D.O. medical students can opt to take the USMLE board exams in addition to their COMLEX, but M.D. students can only take the USMLE exams).

As of 2020, they have merged under the ACGME accreditation. This merger provides consistency in the standards of assessing the competency of residents and fellows that have graduated from U.S. medical education programs, regardless of M.D. or D.O. In other words, residencies between D.O.s and M.D.s are now guaranteed to be held at the same standard.

I hope you found this post informative! Stay tuned for more healthcare-related posts coming up soon. Happy Psoriasis Awareness Month

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