Ever show up at a hospital or emergency clinic and notice that the doctor attending you has a DO after his or her name—and then wonder what the difference is between that and an MD? First, don’t panic: Check out the 50 things ER docs wish you knew. And then rest easy because a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) is licensed to practice medicine in the United States just like an MD (doctor of medicine). We spoke to New York City-based doctor and internet personality Dr. Mikhail “Doctor Mike” Varshavski, DO, to establish the differences between the two types.
The first difference is education and training. “There are two types of medical schools in the United States. Allopathic, which train doctors of medicine, and osteopathic, which train doctors of osteopathic medicine,” explains Dr. Varshavski. “The length of education is identical, with four years of medical schooling in total. In osteopathic training, there is an additional focus placed on the ‘holistic approach’ (the body’s intrinsic ability to heal, treating the whole patient, and the focus on prevention), and OMT (osteopathic manipulative treatment), which is a hands-on approach to treating everything from pneumonia, sinusitis and headaches, to lower back pain.” (Check out these fast fixes for lower back pain.)
Both types of doctor can specialize in any of the medical specialties, but a higher percentage of osteopathic doctors specialize in primary care specialties like family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry and OB/GYN. (Here are surprising fertility facts your OB/GYN wishes you knew.)
MDs have an advantage if they want to work abroad, points out Dr. Varshavski, as they can practice in more countries. “The AOA and other Osteopathic organizations have been making strides in educating foreign governments on U.S.-trained osteopathic doctors. Currently, around 50 countries allow full-medical practice scope to U.S.-trained doctors of osteopathic medicine with an additional grouping allowing restricted practice.”
You might still be wondering if going to a DO is the same as going to an MD. Not quite, says Dr. Varshavski, but the difference is shrinking. “Unless your osteopathic doctor actively practices OMT (and not all do) you will likely not even be able to predict the degree your doctor holds,” he says. “It is very true that osteopathic doctors tend to practice with the whole-patient approach, but I believe that is what leads to the higher percentage of practicing primary care doctors. This is a field where you are actively learning about your patient and using that information not just to relieve symptoms but to prevent problems. This philosophy is instilled in most primary care residencies regardless of DO/MD recognition.”
Are there times where you would want to choose a doctor of medicine over a doctor of osteopathic medicine, or vice versa? “It is unfair to say one doctor is better than the other based on a degree, especially because we are all trained together during residency,” says Dr. Varshavski. Of course, he’s partial to the DO emphasis on prevention and treating the whole patient. “This is one of the great strengths of osteopathic trained physicians.” He also likes the use of OMT as a low-risk tool that osteopathic doctors can call upon during injuries, illness, or dysfunctions. But at the end of the day, it’s how you interact with your physician that matters most, Dr. Varshavski says. “I think in picking a doctor, you should focus less on the degree and more on their knowledge, bedside manner, communication, and patients’ experiences.”