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What's the Difference Between a MD and a DO?

What's the Difference Between a MD and a DO?

If you're looking to advance your career and become a physician, you probably want to know the difference between a MD and a DO before making any big decisions.

Both medical doctors and osteopathic physicians can specialized to become anything from a radiologist to a surgeon to an immunologist, it all depends on how the individual wants to treat their patients. But how does one decide? While both are very similar in educational requirements, there are some unique differences when it comes to treatment plans and methodologies that may appeal to people differently.

The Difference Between a MD and a DO

The most obvious answer to this question is the type of degree each earns. Aspiring medical doctors (MDs), also referred to as allopathic physicians, must earn a Doctor of Medicine degree while osteopathic physicians (DOs) must pursue a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree.

While these two types of physicians are similarly educated, the difference between the programs largely lies in their approach to medicine, training, and philosophy regarding care.

Osteopathic Physicians (DO)

Osteopathic physicians (DO) take a holistic approach to medicine, viewing the body as only one aspect of true health. They put this perspective into practice by treating illnesses in a broad fashion, aiming to improve patient health through all available avenues, including mental and spiritual health.

DOs are typically more involved with their patients as they search for the underlying reasons an illness may be afflicting the patient, such as lifestyle choices, family circumstances, or other outside influences that could be affecting the patient. They're also required to undergo 200 more hours training than MDs in musculoskeletal treatments, commonly referred to as osteopathic manipulated treatment (OMT). OMT is essentially hands-on treatment where a DO will literally use their hands to move the muscles and joints of a patient in order to reach a diagnosis.

For these reasons, for example, a patient suffering from chronic diabetes may seek out an osteopathic physician rather than a medical doctor to advise them on lifestyle changes, environmental changes, and overall health to keep their condition in check.

Just like with a medical doctor, osteopathic physicians can practice in whatever specialty they choose, but most tend to gravitate toward primary care specialties like family medicine or pediatrics.

In order to become licensed, DOs must take the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) currently lists 36 colleges of osteopathic medicine on their site.

Medical Doctors (MD)

Conversely, medical doctors (MD) look to treat specific symptoms of illnesses and ailments in order to pave a path to recovery. Rather than considering the broad range of factors that affect a patient's overall healthy, they seek to make a scientific diagnosis, understand the immediate causes, and create an effective treatment plan.

Although many medical doctors choose to become primary care physicians, as a percentage, many more MDs choose to specialize in certain types of medicine like dermatology or orthopedics, while more DOs choose to go into primary care.

The main difference between a MD and a DO is that medical doctors are not required to undergo OMT training. Their medical school curricula are only minutely different otherwise.

While osteopathic medicine is on the rise, there are currently many more medical doctors in the United States than there are osteopathic physicians. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in 2014 25% of first year medical students entered DO medical programs while 75% entered MD programs.

To become licensed, MDs must take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), rather than the COMLEX that DOs take.


With all things considered, DOs and MDs are still very similar and in the end are both referred to as doctors. They must both pursue the same educational path until they near the end of their program requirements. Both must take very science-intensive undergraduate programs, both must pass the MCAT, and both must take the same courses throughout medical school.

The difference between a MD and a DO typically begins toward the end of education and centers primarily around the training required. Both must then choose their speciality and complete residency programs and internships. And even their salaries are very comparable.

The good news is that if you're looking to become one of these types of physicians, you have quite a long time to make your decision. Make sure to take advantage of your instructors, peers, and anyone else that's in a related field if you're still unsure about which is a better fit for you.

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