MD Or DO? What's The Difference?


Patients in the United States often have two types of doctors to choose from: a MD or a DO. Patients, however, may not know the difference between the two types of doctors. This article is designed to explain what each doctor does, how the two classifications are different, and how they are the same.

What is an MD?

The MD or medical doctor, is the best known physician of the two categories and what we typically think of when we go to "the doctor". MDs practice allopathic medicine. Allopathic medicine is the treatment of diseases with physical interventions, like surgery and pharmaceuticals. Allopathic medicine is also known as “traditional" or “conventional" medicine. A physician who is trained as an MD will more than likely look for the physical symptoms and causes of a disease or health problem. The doctor will then work to treat that specific symptom.

What is a DO?

DO stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine. Osteopathic medicine, unlike allopathic medicine, treats the body as an interconnected or interrelated system. When an MD may ask a patient about symptoms and then look to treat those symptoms, a DO may also inquire about outside forces like stress that cause those symptoms. Doctors of osteopathic medicine are often general practitioners who are concerned with preventative medicine and care.

In addition to four years of medical courses, DOs must also complete 300-500 additional hours of training. During this training period, they learn about the musculoskeletal system and a hands-on treatment approach called “osteopathic manipulative treatment" or OMT. DOs use osteopathic manipulative treatment to feel how the body moves and how fluids flow through the body. By manipulating muscles, they can often treat symptoms that are causing the patient problems.

Similarities Between MDs and DOs

Historically, the biggest difference between MDs and DOs has been the philosophy behind their treatment practices: symptoms (MD) versus whole body (DO). As more medical schools that grant MDs have started to offer classes in osteopathic and alternative medicine, the philosophies themselves are getting much closer together.

Both MDs and DOs perform surgery, prescribe medicine, order diagnostic tests such as x-rays and MRIs, and advise patients. For patients, however, the educational and certification similarities may be just as or more important than the philosophical similarities and differences.

Both DOs and MDs must complete a bachelor's degree, an additional four years of medical school, and a residency program. Many DOs and MDs choose to specialize in a particular type of medicine. To practice, both types of doctors must be certified by the state that they work in. The certification tests (USMLE for MDs and the COMLEX for DOs) cover the same types of biological, chemical, and physiological information. In short, the education and testing that both sets of physicians undergo is quite similar except for the 300-500 hours in osteopathic manipulation that DOs receive.

In addition to practicing general medicine, both DOs and MDs may choose to specialize in a particular type of medicine. To do so, they must complete 2-6 years of additional training in that specialization and then they may choose to take the board exams for that specialization. In other words, DOs and MDs can both be board certified with the appropriate education and testing.

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