Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO) and doctors of medicine (MD) are two types of accredited doctor that can practice medical care in the United States.

Both DOs and MDs require rigorous study in the field of medicine. Most people go to medical schools that offer MDs, but DO degrees are growing in popularity.

An MD is a traditional medicine degree, whereas a DO takes a holistic, mind-body-spirit approach to care. In the U.S., the same licensing boards give licenses to both types of doctor, and they must meet the same standards for practicing medicine.

Keep reading for more information on the similarities and differences between DOs and MDs, as well as how it affects their medical practice.

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Philosophy of care is the main difference between a DO and an MD.

The main difference between DOs and MDs comes down to the philosophy of care. DOs practice an osteopathic approach to care, while MDs practice an allopathic approach to care.

An allopathic approach focuses on contemporary, research-based medicine, and it often uses medications or surgery to treat and manage different conditions.

An osteopathic approach to care focuses on the whole body. DOs often focus on preventative care.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), a person pursuing a DO degree should expect to participate in an additional 200 hours or more of hands-on training on the musculoskeletal system.

On the other hand, the allopathic focus of an MD means that they take a scientific approach to diagnosing and treating individual medical conditions.

According to the AMA, around 75% of all medical students are pursuing an MD degree.

In terms of practices, both DOs and MDs can pursue any speciality they choose.

However, according to the AMA, more DOs than MDs pursue careers in primary care specialities. They found that, in 2018, 57% of DOs pursued primary care specialities. That includes:

  • 31.9% family physicians
  • 17.8% internists
  • 6.8% pediatricians

In the same year, 32% of MDs pursued primary care, which includes:

  • 12.7% family physicians or general practice
  • 12.9% internists
  • 6.5% pediatricians

However, a student considering either program does not always need to stress over which route to take.

According to St. George’s University and the AMA, since both programs lead to licensure, the program a student chooses is starting to become less relevant.

Ultimately, prospective students should consider the school and curriculum to determine which one best suits them.

MD and DO programs have similar requirements when it comes to education. A person needs a very high grade point average (GPA) and medical college admission test (MCAT) score in order to attend either program.

Over 53,000 applicants applied to medical schools in the U.S. in the 2019–2020 school year.

Of those students, the average MCAT score was 506.1, and the average total GPA was 3.58. These averages were both slightly higher than those of the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 school years.

Once in medical school, a student of either program needs to complete 4 years of study. Their curriculum consists of both science courses and clinical rotations.

The main difference is that those studying for a DO degree need to complete an additional 200 hours of study on the musculoskeletal system.

The difference in approach also means that students in DO and MD programs will take different licensing exams. According to St. George University, both exams occur in three parts, and usually:

  • The first part comes at the end of the second year.
  • The second part comes during the fourth year.
  • The third part comes during the first year of the student’s residency.

The licensing tests will also differ. Students pursuing a DO will take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination, but they may also take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Students pursuing an MD will also take the USMLE.

Both DOs and MDs are licensed doctors in the U.S. Both require rigorous study and residency programs in order to gain licensure.

The main difference between the two programs is that DOs learn osteopathic medicine, while MDs learn allopathic medicine.

In other words, in medical school, a DO will study a preventive, “whole person” approach to illness, whereas MDs are more likely to learn how to diagnose and treat a medical condition directly, by looking at its signs and symptoms.

However, this does not mean that MD training does not teach a holistic or preventive approach to addressing medical conditions.

Unlike MD students, DO students will also undergo hands-on musculoskeletal training, called osteopathic manipulative treatment.

Ultimately, however, either medical school route will focus on acquiring and utilizing up-to-date medical knowledge and delivering appropriate medical care. Therefore, the program a prospective student pursues will largely be a matter of individual preference.