Medical Doctor or Osteopathic Doctor: What's the Difference?

Have you always dreamed of becoming a doctor? Have you worked hard and “made the grade” throughout high school and now you’re preparing for college or you’re a college student preparing for medical school? Do you know that more goes into that title than just “doctor?” There are many different types of doctors, specializing in many different things. To start off, it would be best if you decided if you wanted to go the route of an MD (medical doctor) or a DO (osteopathic doctor). Did you even know there was a difference between the two? If not, read on to learn about the differences and about the course of study for each path, no matter which one you choose.

The Differences

While many might 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 you are considering a career as a doctor. The practice of an MD is allopathic. This means that they are of the belief in using scientific treatment with drugs. You might have heard the term modern medicine, or Western medicine before. Those terms are used in lieu of “allopathic,” but they are one and the same. 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; the list is endless!

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 (even though DO’s are licensed to prescribe medicine), non-invasive approach allows DO’s to focus on other issues that may be causing certain symptoms, rather than focusing on a 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 (there are many more MD programs in the United States than there are DO programs), 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.

The 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, you can obtain a bachelor’s degree, take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and apply to medical school. Med school will take another 4 years to complete, with the first two years focusing on the coursework and the last two focusing on gaining the 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 your knowledge of basic sciences. During your fourth year of med school, you will take the next part of the USMLE. This part takes two days with the first date multiple choice, assessing your Clinical Knowledge, and the second day will test your Clinical Skills as you practice on actors posing as patients.

The next 3-7 years will involve completing your residency. Your residency program will be chosen based upon your career interests and during this time you will gain the more hands-on experience needed to prepare you for your career in the field. After your first year of residency, you will take the final portion of the USMLE. Focusing on diagnosing and treating “patients,” complete with multiple choice and computer simulations, the final test will assess if you are prepared to practice medicine unsupervised Finally, you will need to obtain a license to practice medicine in the state in which you want to practice your specialty.

Becoming a DO

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

Next, you will 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 gives you more hands-on experience in a clinical setting.

The licensure exam that you will need take upon completion of med 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 your osteopathic knowledge of concepts, sciences, and the like. This is taken at the end of your 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 will occur at the end of your third year. The final level is a two-day exam, also computer-based, focusing on the application of your osteopathic knowledge, patient safety and independent practices, and foundational competency, among other areas. This final level of the COMLEX-USA takes place during your residency.

Before entering a residency program, you will have to enroll in an internship program. Your residency will focus on the specialty of your choosing. Students will typically be in a residency program for 3-8 years. Then you can obtain your board certification or continue subspecialty training in a fellowship program.

Which Path to Choose?

No one can make that decision for you. If you are looking to practice medicine using a more whole-body approach in a hands-on way, and not relying on medicine to solve all of your patients’ issues, then you would benefit from a DO. If you follow the science of Western medicine, the path of an MD might be more for you. Regardless of which path you choose; you will still be a licensed physician. Your schooling and your career and salary will be dependent on the area of study you are interested in, as well as in any areas you choose to specialize in. Do your research and go with your gut. There are patients out there waiting for your care!