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The Difference Between an MD and a DO

The Difference Between an MD and a DO

Advancing your career and becoming a physician is an excellent choice for many, but there are many things you must learn before committing yourself to this profession. The first is knowing the difference between an MD (medical doctor) and DO (osteopathic physician).

Both medical doctors and osteopathic physicians can specialize in any number of fields, including radiologists, surgeons, immunologists, and more. MDs and DOs have very similar educational requirements, and the main difference between the two is the approach to treatment plans and methodologies in medical school. Your personal preference and ideologies will play the most prominent role in the path you choose to take.


The Difference Between an MD and a DO

The main difference between the two is the degree that each earns. Aspiring medical doctors (MDs) must earn a Doctor of Medicine degree, whereas osteopathic physicians (DOs) must earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree.

As mentioned, the requirements are similar, and the main difference between the two lies in their overall approach to medicine, training, and philosophy regarding care.


Osteopathic Physicians (DO)

Osteopathic physicians take a holistic approach to medicine, viewing the body as one aspect of health. They put this perspective into practice with an approach to treating illnesses in a broad fashion, aiming to improve patient health through all available avenues, including mental and spiritual health. Since DOs focus on the body as a whole and its inner workings, they often focus more on prevention than treatment.

DOs are trained in medical school to search for the underlying reason an illness may be affecting the patient, such as lifestyle choices, family circumstances, or other outside influences, particularly as it relates to the musculoskeletal system. Current guidelines require DOs to undergo 200 additional hours of training in musculoskeletal treatments, commonly referred to as osteopathic manipulated treatment (OMT). OMT is a hands-on treatment in which a DO will use their hands to move a patient's muscles and joints to reach a particular diagnosis. MDs are not required to undergo this training.

A patient who has chronic diabetes, for example, may reach out to an osteopathic physician rather than a medical doctor to advise them on lifestyle changes, environmental changes, and overall health to help keep their condition in check.

Osteopathic physicians can practice in whatever specialty they choose, but more than half tend to gravitate toward primary care specialties like family medicine or pediatrics.

DOs must take the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) to receive their license. The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM)currently lists a total of 43 osteopathic medical colleges.


Medical Doctors (MD)

Medical doctors look to treat specific symptoms of illnesses and ailments to pave a path to recovery. MDs use conventional means and tools to determine their patients' needs, such as prescription drugs, x-rays, and surgery. Rather than looking at a holistic view, like a DO, MDs seek to make scientific diagnoses to understand the immediate causes and create an effective treatment plan.

Similar to DOs, MDs can specialize in any field. While many focus on primary care, more MDs have more detailed specialties, like dermatology or orthopedics, than DOs.

MDs must take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) to receive their license.



MDs and DOs are both incredibly similar and are both recognized as doctors. Therefore, they must both pursue the same educational path until they near the end of their specific program requirements. Both must take science-intensive courses, pass the MCAT, and take the same classes throughout medical school; DOs and MDs often train side-by-side in residency programs.

The main difference between the two programs is the overarching view they take within medical school - DOs focus on a holistic approach, concentrating on prevention. In contrast, MDs look at specific illnesses or ailments and find a cure from there. This is the main differentiating factor that causes someone to become an MD or a DO, as their training, schooling, residency, and salary are comparable. Their approaches during and after residency is also largely the same.

 If you’re looking to become a DO or MD, since the initial path is similar you don’t have to make a final decision yet. Start your classes, talk to your instructors, and see how you feel about each technique. From there, you’ll know whether you should become a medical doctor or osteopathic physician.


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