MD vs. DO: What Is the Difference?

MDs and DOs are both reputable health care providers. The difference is one of philosophy.
MDs and DOs are both reputable health care providers. The difference is one of philosophy. / Karolina Grabowska, Pexels

Sifting through the qualifications of a health care provider can be an exercise in frustration, particularly when their name comes with designations that don’t make their title immediately clear. Most of us know an MD is a doctor of medicine, but what about a DO? What’s the difference?

It’s primarily one of philosophy.

Both MDs and DOs, or doctors of osteopathic medicine, receive much of the same training and experience in medical school. But an MD’s education is mostly allopathic, or remedy-based, while a DO learns to take more of a holistic, or whole body, approach.

Say you have persistent back pain. Absent any obvious injury, an MD might prescribe pain relievers. A DO, meanwhile, might look for other sources of the pain by taking it in the context of the entire patient, searching for causes ranging from stress to chronic conditions. DOs take environment, nutrition, and overall health into consideration when looking at any one condition.

DOs are also taught to place a heavy emphasis on overall wellness, taking a more systemic approach to patient care.

In terms of education, it’s largely the same for both degrees, with four years of medical school followed by a residency. (In fact, DO and MD graduates train in the same residency programs.) There’s one major exception: DOs get roughly 200 hours of hands-on training on the musculoskeletal system, also known as osteopathic manipulative treatment. This involves manipulating or massaging muscle tissue to relieve pain.

It’s important to remember that while MDs and DOs have slightly different educational curriculums, an individual physician’s approach to practicing medicine isn’t necessarily bound by that guidance. An MD can take a holistic approach to patient care, while a DO may not use osteopathic manipulative treatment in their practice.

Roughly 75 percent of medical students pursue an MD degree. Those who obtain a DO degree are more likely to get into family or general practice than MDs, who go into a specialty more often than their DO counterparts.

Neither an MD nor a DO program is any easier or harder to get into or graduate from than the other. Both have virtually the same abilities in practicing medicine, including prescribing medication. Whether you select an MD or a DO to guide your care is largely one of personal preference. In the end, it’s the doctor, not the title, that matters.