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Last Updated: August 31, 2021

Choosing Between Being a Medical Doctor or Osteopathic Doctor

Candidates who aspire to become doctors and have worked hard throughout their high school years for the same dream will be astonished to find that a lot more goes into the title of being a doctor. There are many different types of doctors depending upon the specializations they take and the different fields they choose under this umbrella term.

One of the most important and basic decisions that candidates will have to make depends on whether they want to become a medical doctor/MD or an osteopathic doctor/DO. This page deals with the basic differences between the two titles and the course of action candidates will have to take to follow either of these two career options.

What is an MD Program?

The abbreviation MD stands for Doctor of Medicine and stands for a professional graduate degree in medicine. They practice medicine by focusing on treatments with a scientific basis. This involves the diagnosis of diseases and other treatments using tools like x-ray, drugs, and even surgery. They generally work as primary care doctors and will be able to specialize in a particular field of study, like general medicine or internal medicine. While an MD degree does not let candidates specialize deeply in a particular field, they will be able to take additional specialized training to do the same.

Though the degree is professional in nature within the US and does not involve extensive research, most candidates choose to research further in their field of specialization. They also eventually publish papers and do basic scientific research after their graduation.

What is a DO Program?

The abbreviation DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and is considered to be an equivalent of the MD degree though it has a slightly different approach to medicine. Unlike an MD degree where candidates focus on a scientific approach, DO graduates focus on the prevention of diseases and holistic health. This field of study is strictly based in the US and foreign osteopathic degrees are not accepted or recognized within the country.

Candidates have to do an additional 300-500 hours of study in hands-on manual medicine and musculoskeletal system which is also known as osteopathic manipulative medicine/OMM.

Difference Between an MD and DO

While many may think of an MD (medical doctor) and a DO (osteopathic doctor) as being similar (and they ARE both licensed physicians), it’s important to know the differences if they are considering a career as a doctor. The practice of an MD is allopathic. This means that they believe in the application of scientific treatment using legalized drugs. The terms modern medicine or Western medicine have long been attributed to the allopathic stream of study which will be the basis for being a medical doctor. Allopathic practices also believe in the use of radiation and surgeries for treatment methods. While MD’s can become primary care physicians in internal medicine, many also elect to become a specialist in such areas as dermatology, gynecology, endocrinology, surgeons.

An osteopathic doctor, or DO, is a doctor who practices osteopathy. Osteopathy is the whole-body approach to treatment. This holistic approach allows a DO to assess the mind, body, and emotions of a patient when diagnosing and treating them. Using this drug-free, non-invasive approach allows them to focus on other issues that may be causing certain symptoms, rather than focusing on the disease itself. They try to help the body heal itself in the most natural way possible and specialize in a hands-on approach. While most doctors carry the MD credential, the number of DO’s has steadily been on the rise. Many DO’s end up as primary care physicians in internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, and the like.

Similarities Between MD and DO

The essential path of study for MD and DO is similar in nature since they differ only in their approach to medicine. Candidates who are doing either an MD program or a DO program will have to start with a four-year study in the sciences after which they will have to take the MCAT. During this period of study, they will have to focus on fulfilling their pre-medical education requirements.

Once this has been completed, they will be able to do their MD or DO program depending on their field of interest. After completing the program, they will have to do internships and complete their residency before they obtain a license to practice within the state of their choice.

Doing an MD Program

The road to obtaining an MD begins as an undergraduate with a heavy course load in the sciences. After 4 years as an undergraduate, candidates will be able to obtain a bachelor’s degree, take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), and apply to medical school.

Medical school will take another 4 years to complete, with the first two years focusing on the coursework and the last two focusing on gaining experience in the field with faculty supervision. According to the Princeton Review, students will take the first step of the USMLE (US Medical Licensing Examination) after their second year of med school. This is a one-day, multiple-choice exam that will assess their knowledge of basic sciences.

During the fourth year of medical school, students will take the next part of the USMLE. This part takes two days with the exam on the first day comprising only of multiple-choice questions based on clinical knowledge and the second day comprising of a practical test of clinical skills. The next 3-7 years will involve completing their residency.

The residency program that is done by the candidate will be based on their career interests. Candidates will be able to get hands-on experience during this period of study and prepare for their future careers. After the first year of residency, they will be able to take the final part of USMLE. After the USMLE has been completed, candidates will be able to obtain a license to practice medicine within a state of their choice based on their specialization.

Doing a DO Program

The path to being an osteopathic doctor begins much in the same way as becoming a Doctor of Medicine. Candidates will be required to attend an undergraduate program (heavy in the science courses) for 4 years and will need to take the MCAT upon obtaining their bachelor’s degree.

After this, they will be able to enter medical school, but in the DO program. These programs take up to four years to complete, and like med school for MDs, the first two years focus on the coursework and the final two years give candidates hands-on experience in a clinical setting.

The licensure exam that students will have to take upon the completion of medical school is slightly different than that of an MD. DO’s will take the COMLEX-USA (Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination). This exam will be taken in 3 levels. The first level is a computer-based exam testing the candidate’s osteopathic knowledge of concepts in the sciences. This is taken at the end of the second year of the DO program.

The second level is split in half: Level 2-CE and Level 2-PE, with the first being computer-based and the second assessing clinical skills. This has to be taken at the end of their third year of study. The final level is a two-day exam, also computer-based, focusing on the application of their osteopathic knowledge, patient safety and independent practices, and foundational competency, among other areas. This final level of the COMLEX-USA is to be done during the residency program.

Before doing a residency program, candidates will have to enroll in an internship program. The residency program they eventually choose will be based on the specialization chosen by the candidate. Students will typically be in a residency program for 3-8 years. Once this has been completed, they will be able to obtain their board certification or continue their subspecialty training in a fellowship program.

Choosing Between MD and DO

Choosing between the programs after their pre-medical education, depends entirely on the candidate. Candidates that wish to practice a field of medicine that involves only scientific methods, will have to choose an MD program whereas candidates who wish to work on the prevention of diseases will have to choose a DO program.

Regardless of the path one chooses, candidates will be able to do their internships and residency program within the same system. They will also be licensed practitioners of medicine within the state of their choice.

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