For anyone exploring careers in healthcare, we are often reminded of the prestigious and tenacious status of MDs when applying to colleges, talking to family, or scheduling biyearly visits with our doctor. However, many of us may have encountered the other popular route: DO. Our minds naturally think of a common question: What is DO? Is it better than MD?
While I cannot answer the latter question for you, I can answer the former by breaking down the concepts and values of both MDs and DOs to hopefully equip you to make a well-informed decision on which path to take.
Before I present my findings, I would like to inform you all that I myself am on the pathway towards DO. In my senior year of high school, I was accepted into my university’s combined BS/DO program and am expecting to matriculate into DO school in 2021. While I found that the DO pathway better aligned with my own values, I hope to eliminate any and all bias in this dissection of the two fields.
Doctor of Medicine (commonly referred to as MD) is a degree accredited to allopathic physicians, while Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) is accredited to osteopathic physicians. Allopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine are both based on scientifically-proven conclusions. Both pathways lead to fully licensed physicians who can practice medicine in all 50 states. The pathways to achieve either degree are very similar as well. Students take the MCAT, earn a bachelor’s degree, apply to medical school, and attend medical school for 4 years. This is often followed by graduate medical education (GME)--residency for 3-7 years and an optional fellowship for 1-3 years depending on specialty.
The main difference between the two pathways is the philosophy of teaching. Allopathic medicine (MD) encompasses the ideas of western and conventional medicine. Physicians are trained to treat their patients with contemporary solutions, such as drugs, radiation, and surgery. In addition to these teachings, DOs on the other hand are also taught to focus on preventative medicine, or what we often refer to as the “holistic approach”. This principle recognizes the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of the body. It also incorporates an intervention called osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT): an art of palpation used for treatment and better diagnosis by “gently moving one’s joints and tissues to correct any restrictions in their range of motion” (WebMD). Learning OMT enables DO students to perform an additional 200 hours of neuroskeletal diagnostic training during medical school.
Empirical data suggests that each pathway may cater to specific groups of people over others. For example, the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) has found that in their 2018 figures, “Nearly 57% of DOs practice in primary care specialties: 31.9% are family physicians, 17.8% are internists and 6.8% are pediatricians. By comparison, about 32% of active U.S. physicians with MD credentials practice in primary care specialties: 12.7% are family physicians or in general practice, 12.9% are internists, and 6.5% are pediatricians.” Furthermore, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) states, “In the United States, 67.4% of active physicians are M.D.s, while 7.3% are D.O.s (The remaining 24.2% received their degree from a medical school outside of the United States).” Lastly, DO physicians tend to practice in more rural areas, whereas MD physicians are prevalent in urban, metropolitan
Despite these differences, it seems that leading organizations of the medical field are aiming to mend the seemingly polarized systems of MD and DO. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), MDs and DOs will be fully entering the same residency match process for the first time starting on July1, 2020. Previously, DO students needed to complete the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series in addition to the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) sequence if they were interested in applying to both DO and MD residency programs. Now, both licensing exams will be equally recognized.
Furthermore, from my personal discussions with doctors and residents holding both degrees, I often hear the same words of advice: “Don’t worry about the degree.” “MD and DO are simply letters after a name.” Both degrees will readily prepare you to follow your passion. Although MD is statistically more popular than DO, you should not allow data to sway your decisions over your values.