MD vs DO: What’s the Difference?

DOs take a holistic approach to care

Young physicians. One is an MD and the other is a DO.

DOs take a holistic approach to care

When it’s time to choose a doctor, you may notice that some physicians have a DO behind their name instead of an MD.

DO stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine, and just like a medical doctor (or MD), they are fully trained physicians and certified to provide exceptional health care.

“The biggest misconception about a doctor of osteopathic medicine is that we are not physicians,” says Immanuel Hausig, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, Carlsbad. “In reality, a DO has the same training as an MD, in addition to specialized training in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal conditions with our hands.”

Developed in the late 19th century in the United States, osteopathic physicians concentrate on treating the whole patient, rather than focusing on treating the symptoms only. 

While most physicians are MDs, the number of DOs has grown. In 2023, the number of osteopathic physicians in the United States reached nearly 150,000, a 30% increase over the past five years, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Osteopathic medical education

Medical education for an osteopathic physician is similar to that of their allopathic, or MD, colleagues. Both must complete four years of medical school in addition to an internship, residency and possible fellowship and must take state licensing exams in order to practice medicine.

The specialized training for a DO is known as osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a hands-on approach to care used to help diagnose illness or injury and facilitate the body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.

DOs receive extra instruction in the musculoskeletal system, the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones, and pay special attention to how they work together to influence health. OMT is taught during both medical school and residency, and many DOs continue to use it in their practice.

“During medical school, we spend time learning how to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal issues with our hands,” explains Dr. Hausig. “In our third and fourth years, we also have rotations with OMT specialists.”

Specializing in primary care

Specializing in primary care

More than half of DOs practice in primary care, specializing in internal medicine, family medicine and pediatric medicine where they can develop long-term relationships with their patients.

DOs generally take a more holistic approach and look beyond the physical symptoms of illness or injury. They take into account the various aspects of a patient’s life — including body, emotions, the environment, mind and spirit — to develop an individualized care plan.

“I decided to become a DO because I was drawn to the osteopathic philosophy,” says Dr. Hausig. “The core of our philosophy is that the body has an inherent ability to heal itself. As DO physicians, we support this self-healing mechanism with lifestyle modifications, medications if needed and the correction of structural imbalances through osteopathic manipulation.”

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