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Difference Between MD and DO

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 13, 2021

When you say that you are going to see a doctor, you may be referring to two types of medical professionals: MDs and DOs. Each title refers to the type of degree and licensing the doctor has. Both MDs and DOs have similar training and duties, but they differ in a few key areas.

What Is an MD?

MD stands for doctor of medicine. MDs are allopathic doctors. That means they treat and diagnose conditions using conventional medical tools like x-rays, prescription drugs, and surgery. Allopathic medicine is also called conventional or mainstream medicine.

MDs can choose to be broad practitioners and work as family medicine or primary care doctors. They can also specialize in several different areas requiring further education including:

  • Surgery
  • Specific body parts or organs
  • Psychiatry
  • Geriatric medicine
  • Pediatrics

What Is a DO?

DO stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine. They use the same conventional medical techniques as MDs but with a few other methods. DOs tend to focus more on holistic health and prevention. In holistic health, all parts of a person, including their mind, body, and emotions, are considered during the treatment. They also use a system of physical manipulations and adjustments to diagnose and treat people.

Over half of DOs choose to work in primary care, but they can also choose to specialize in another area, just like MDs.

DOs have all the same responsibilities and rights as MDs, including the abilities to perform surgery with proper training and prescribe medicine.

How Are MDs and DOs Similar?

MDs and DOs follow similar educational routes. They must first earn a four-year undergraduate degree, and most will take pre-medicine courses during this time. After getting an undergraduate degree, they will attend either medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine.

After finishing four years of medical education, MDs and DOs must complete an internship and a residency. A residency is on-the-job training under the supervision of more experienced doctors. Some MDs and DOs will also go on to do fellowships to learn more about a specialty. 

MDs and DOs often train side by side in residencies and internships, despite going to different types of schools.

Both MDs and DOs must also take a licensing exam in order to practice medicine professionally. The type of licensing exam taken depends on the state that the MD or DO resides in.

How Are MDs and DOs Different?

Education. Both allopathic medical schools and colleges of osteopathic medicine are competitive to get into. However, students attending colleges of osteopathic medicine have slightly lower average GPAs and MCAT scores compared to students attending medical schools. 

These lower GPAs and MCAT scores do not necessarily reflect the quality of students in DO programs. There are fewer students in colleges of osteopathic medicine compared to allopathic medical schools. Only a quarter of medical students in the US attend a college of osteopathic medicine.

DOs have extra education, usually about 200 hours, to learn osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). It is also called osteopathic manipulative technique (OMT).

DOs learn about how the bones, nerves, and muscles work together and influence people’s health. OMT focuses on methods used to relieve back pain, neck pain, strained muscles, and other conditions. 

Approach to Medicine. MDs focus on looking at your symptoms and making a diagnosis based on those symptoms. They tend to take a more targeted approach to treatment.

DOs, on the other hand, see the body as an integrated whole and treat health issues accordingly. Because of this holistic view, they usually focus more on prevention. They may also make more lifestyle recommendations compared to MDs.

Some MDs may also take a holistic approach to medicine, but not all of them will. Holistic health is the basis of osteopathic medicine, so all DOs will use this approach. 

Patient visits. One study found that around 19% of doctor's visits were to DOs, and 81% were to MDs. Depending on where you live or who you are, you may be more or less likely to see a DO or MD. 

  • More people living in the Northeast United States sought care from a DO. 
  • Children, African-American, and Hispanic people were less likely to see a DO than an MD. 
  • Women were more likely than men to see a DO.

Patient satisfaction. One survey showed that people who had seen osteopathic doctors were more satisfied with their treatment than those who had been to allopathic doctors, chiropractors, and other types of health care providers. 

Differences Between DOs and Chiropractors

While the OMM techniques performed by DOs seem similar to those used by chiropractors, the two fields are different. Unlike DOs, chiropractors cannot practice medicine. Chiropractors focus more on the musculoskeletal system and spinal alignment. DOs can practice medicine like an MD, and they focus on holistic and preventative medicine.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

AMA: "DO vs. MD: How much does the medical school degree type matter?"

Columbia College: "Allopathic and Osteopathic Medicine."

OSTEOPATHIC MEDICINE AND PRIMARY CARE: "A comparison of patient visits to osteopathic and allopathic general and family medicine physicians: results from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, 2003–2004."

Reid Health: "The Difference Between Osteopathic Medicine vs Chiropractic Medicine."

Scripps: "MD or DO: Which Is the Right Doctor for You?"

SWEDISH: "Medical Doctor."

UMHS: "DO vs MD - Osteopathic vs Allopathic - What's the Difference?"

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