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DO Family Medicine: Difference Between MD and DO, and More

Written by 
Katee Fletcher

Article at a glance

  • DOs are osteopathic physicians that are licensed to practice medicine throughout the United States.

  • Osteopathic medicine is based in well-rounded care that aims to treat a patient’s entire body comprehensively instead of on a symptomatic basis.

  • DOs and MDs are similar in many ways including the requirements of their degree paths, where they are licensed to practice medicine, and more.

  • DOs and MDs are different in many ways as well, especially in the ways they approach care as MDs are taught in an allopathic medical school and DOs are taught in an osteopathic medical school.

In 1892, Andrew Taylor Still formed the first American School of Osteopathy where Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) were trained to treat the human body as a whole instead of on a symptomatic basis. In 1973, DOs were finally granted the right to practice medicine throughout the United States and now comprise 7.3% of practicing physicians. As the profession gains recognition, a career as an osteopathic doctor is becoming more sought after with 26% of current medical students enrolled in osteopathic medical schools.

What is a DO?

A DO is a doctor with the acronym itself standing for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.” DOs receive osteopathic training in comparison to MDs that receive allopathic medical training. All DOs are licensed physicians that are fully trained to work with patients in the medical field.

How are DOs educated and trained?

Osteopathic doctors first complete four years of osteopathic medical school that centers around holistic care that emphasizes preventive medicine and treatment options. During medical school, DOs are trained to approach the patient’s care as a whole and recognize that all systems of the body are interconnected when it comes to health.

After graduating, DOs participate in internships, residencies, and fellowships that last between three and eight years and train them in a live workspace. Once completing their residencies, osteopathic doctors are licensed and certified to practice in the medical field as physicians. 

How are DOs licensed and certified?

All physicians, including osteopathic doctors, are licensed to practice medicine by individually operated licensing boards whose requirements vary from state to state. Most likely, licensure requires the completion of a medical licensing exam or completion of an exam series followed by a certificate issued by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners.

In order for any physician to gain a specialty, they must pass a specialty certification board that includes a process of written, practical, and simulator-based tests. This wide range of testing and rigorous certification is administered by the American Osteopathic Association or the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Note: The Federation of State Medical Boards provides a directory of state licensing boards and procedures for the public. To look up a specific physician and verify their credentials, visit this source.

What is an MD?

An MD is also a licensed physician with the acronym itself meaning Medical Doctor.” Medical Doctors receive training in allopathic medicine vice osteopathic medicine and comprise the majority of physicians in the current medical field (67.4%).

What is osteopathic medicine?

Osteopathic medicine uses the approach of holistic care when it comes to treating patients. Schools of osteopathy train students in traditional Western” medicine techniques like how to prescribe medication, use radiation, perform surgery, and more. However, students of osteopathic medicine also learn to approach the body as a whole and treat it comprehensively instead of honing in on the one section that’s ailing. 

What is OMM?

Often in osteopathic medicine, DOs will practice a technique known as Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM) or Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). Osteopathic medicine aims to treat patients holistically while emphasizing the importance of one’s musculoskeletal system. Therefore, in addition to traditional medicinal measures, DOs expand their skill set to include alternative measures such as OMM when it comes to bodily ailments like arthritis, headaches, sports injuries, and more. With patients suffering from specific aches or pains, DOs use hands-on OMM to add pressure, resistance, or stretching to various bones, joints, muscles, or tissues in a patient’s body.

What is allopathic medicine?

Opposite of osteopathic care which approaches medicine in a holistic manner, allopathic medicine aims to treat what is ailing a patient. Allopathy is the most common form of medicinal practice in the United States with the majority of physicians going to allopathic medical schools and becoming MDs. Typically allopathic medicine is known as the traditional” medicine route or Western” approach to medical care. Physicians in allopathic schools learn to analyze, diagnose, and treat symptoms that are bothering a patient in order to make the problem go away. Treatments in allopathy usually include traditional medical measures such as prescription drugs, radiation, surgery, etc.

How are DOs and MDs similar?

All DOs and MDs are certified and licensed to practice medicine throughout the United States. Therefore, while DOs and MDs may have slight differences in approaches to care, they have many similarities as well, such as:

  • Identical Undergraduate Path: All DOs and MDs undergo the same undergraduate path consisting of a bachelor’s degree, pre-med coursework, and taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam.

  • Similar Graduate Medical Education: All DOs and MDs complete four years of medical school followed by a residency that lasts anywhere from three to eight years.

  • Licensed Location: All DOs and MDs are licensed to practice medicine in all 50 states.

Medical Specialties: Both DOs and MDs have the opportunity to become specialists in a certain field and are both found in every offered specialty.

How are DOs and MDs different?

While DOs and MDs have similarities on paper, their approaches to care tend to differ along with a few portions of their licensure path. Differences between DO vs MD as students and primary care doctors include:

  • Care Philosophy: DOs are taught to approach care in a more holistic sense through osteopathic medicine, meanwhile, MDs are taught to treat specific symptoms or ailments through allopathic medicine. 

  • Degree Path: While DOs and MDs have nearly an identical degree path, DOs do complete an extra 300 hours of Osteopathic Manipulation Medicine (OMM) training. This training focuses on the importance of the musculoskeletal system and how it impacts our health and wellbeing. 

  • Board Exams: In order to obtain their medical license in allopathic and osteopathic medicine, MDs and DOs must take a board exam that is a comprehensive medical licensing examination. DOs take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMLEX) while MDs take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Career Path: While DOs and MDs are licensed to practice medicine in all fields, DOs have a higher rate of entering family medicine and primary care.

What is family medicine?

Family medicine is known for its wide scope of comprehensive care while treating anyone from newborns to seniors. Family physicians go through family medicine training to treat acute, chronic, and preventive care while prioritizing the patient’s overall health throughout treatment. An osteopathic physician or an allopathic physician can operate as a family medicine doctor. Often, osteopathic physicians focus on family medicine or primary health care.

Note: To learn more about family physicians or other types of primary care physicians (PCPs), visit this source.

Common Practices in Family Medicine

Family physicians are known to use a variety of different practice models that usually focus on a team-based approach to holistic care. Certain models include:

  • Direct Primary Care (DPC): A direct practice and payment model that eliminates third-party insurance providers to amplify the importance of a doctor-to-patient relationship and care structure.

  • Employed Status: Relating to physicians that decide to work within a hospital, community health center, or practice that employs them.

  • Multispecialty Group Practice: Many physicians in different practices work collaboratively in one building to ease patient care.

  • Part-Time Practice: Physicians who practice family care on a part-time basis.

  • Private Practice: Family physicians that enjoy the flexibility of running their own practice alongside other colleagues.

  • Rural Practice: Family physicians that practice medicine in rural areas with little opportunity for medical care. Often this includes treating patients that are underserved and struggle with illiteracy, poverty, and/​or limited community resources.

Note: To learn more about family medicine practices, visit this source.

Focus Areas in Family Medicine

Many specialties are included in the field of family medicine such as:

  • Education

  • Emergency and Urgent Care

  • Hospitalist/​Inpatient Medicine

  • Maternity Care

  • Public Health

  • Procedures

  • Research

  • Sports Medicine

Note: To learn more about these particular focus areas in family medicine, visit this source.

Can DOs and MDs practice family medicine?

Yes, DOs and MDs are both licensed medical professionals that are able to practice in the field of family medicine.

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