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What’s the difference between MD and DO?

Like most future pre-med students, you’ve likely envisioned the initials M.D. behind your name once you graduate medical school. But the road to those initials is lengthy and difficult, with only a slim percent achieving the end goal. What if there was another option? As a field swiftly on the rise, Osteopathic Medicine exists as an alternate path from the traditional medical track, attracting over a quarter of all current medical students.  


What is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine?


DOs are characterized by their focus on whole-body healing, and they operate under the practice that true healing is not complete until the mind, body, and soul are in tune. Known for their use of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine, osteopathic physicians learn a holistic view to healing while attending one of the 35 colleges of osteopathic medicine currently available within the United States. The OMM technique uses a hands-on approach to work alongside the body’s own structure and functions to restore motion and soothe pain. The goal with each patient is to emphasize a high level of wellness, through expert massage and manipulation of the body. Their strong foundation in primary care is an excellent match for students already considering a career as a General Physician or in family medicine. 


Like an MD, osteopathic physicians are certified doctors with the same amount of schooling, except DOs are additionally trained in the benefits of OMM. Both medical pathways require the same amount of time spent in school. Both MDs and DOs complete a pre-med undergraduate degree at a university of their choice while studying to take the MCAT, and they spend the next four years in medical school. Their time in medical school is typically followed by clinical rotations and a residency program before becoming a certified physician from the same state licensing boards. DOs also still practice all specialties of medicine, from pediatrics to surgery.



How does this differ from a traditional MD?


While the education of both pathways in regards to textbooks and courses looks relatively the same in the beginning of medical school, the two professions begin to differ when it comes to the approach to treatments. Traditional MDs practice “allopathic medicine,” or traditional science-based medical treatments. Osteopathic physicians explore alternative medical treatments, or homeopathy, in their holistic wellness approach. One major difference is the focus on learning about the whole-body connection between nerves, muscles, and bones while studying the OMM techniques. 


Who is a good candidate for a DO program?


Students who are attracted to the DO pathway typically share some common characteristics: they are usually empathetic, approachable and enjoy the hands-on skills involved with OMM. Another key indicator of an affinity for osteopathic medicine is a desire for communication with their patients. Strong relationship-building skills are an essential component to the daily interaction between a DO and their clients, as this is the link that will lead them to whole-body wellness. 


With the level of commitment it requires to complete the OMM training, a strong work ethic is indispensable, along with an innate ability to connect with others. While osteopathic physicians are trained to consider the patient holistically, it is also helpful to be a naturally intuitive person. 


How does the admissions process differ from a traditional MD?


The application process to attend a DO program can be just as difficult as pursuing admission to MD programs. Students considering this route should have top grades and outstanding science-based extracurriculars even before entering undergraduate school. 


Once you are admitted to the undergraduate school of your choice to complete your pre-med coursework, you should be following the same path as an MD hopeful: joining healthcare organizations, networking with highly-regarded healthcare professionals, and taking on an internship or research project. Around your second year, you can start studying for the MCAT to take in your third year while maintaining high grades. After taking the MCAT test in your third year, the real work begins. You can make a list of medical schools, write your personal statement essay in advance, and submit applications when you receive your MCAT results. Your final undergraduate year will be spent in medical school interviews from September through February as you decide on the right medical program. 


While this timeline is essentially the same for both MD and DO programs, the deadlines differ. MD students must make their medical school decisions by April 30, while DO students have additional time with their deadline of May 15. DO students submit applications through American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS), while MD students use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Both MD and DO students use the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) for schools in Texas. 


For high school students seeking a direct-admit medical program, there are even a few schools offering a direct osteopathic (BS/DO) program. These schools are: NOVA Southeastern University, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science, Pitzer College, and New York Institute of Technology. 


Which should you choose?


As you move toward your future medical school dreams, it is important to know all of your available options as you discover your strengths throughout your pre-med undergraduate program. Do your research in advance to discover which route best suits your learning style and eventual goals. Keep in mind that while the holistic pathway of an osteopathic physician may eventually result in different initials, the benefits may far outweigh the name change for the right students.

Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.