DO vs MD – What’s the Difference?
September 11, 2023
Deciding to become a doctor is a big decision to make at any stage of your life. The process from applying to medical school to finishing your residency is both arduous and rewarding. However, before you embark on the multi-year journey, it’s important to understand what kind of doctor you’d like to become. (And we’re not just talking about specialties here!) In fact, you can pursue a Doctor of Medicine degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree. Both provide you with accreditation to practice medicine in the U.S., but there’s so much more information you should know before making your decision. Read on to have all your questions about DO vs. MD degrees answered!
What is the Difference Between an MD and a DO?
There are two ways a physician can become educated in the U.S. They can either be trained in allopathic or osteopathic medicine. A physician with a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree will have attended an allopathic medical school accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education of the Association of American Medical Colleges (LCME). In contrast, a physician with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree will have attended an osteopathic medical school accredited by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.
In terms of medical philosophy, MDs and DOs approach examination, diagnosis, and treatment differently. MDs practice allopathic medicine, which primarily uses medications and surgery to treat illness and injury. They also use specific tests and procedures to diagnose these afflictions. DOs, on the other hand, practice osteopathic medicine. This philosophy focuses on treating the body holistically rather than specific conditions individually. Sometimes osteopathic manipulative treatments are used along with the same tools used in allopathy.
Despite the differences in medical philosophies, there are numerous similarities between MDs and DOs, including:
- Attending a four-year accredited medical school.
- Using proven scientific facts to diagnose and treat patients.
- Being able to practice medicine throughout the U.S.
- Writing medical prescriptions.
- Specializing in a particular field of medicine.
There are also notable differences between MDs and DOs beyond their medical philosophies. For example, there are four times as many accredited MD programs as DO programs, which translates to the 9:1 ratio of MD vs. DO physicians in the U.S. Oftentimes, MD doctors specialize in a certain field and work in more populated areas. Meanwhile, DO doctors pursue primary care in less populated regions. Finally, MD and DO physicians must pass different exams to receive their respective medical licenses.
What is the Application Process Like for DO vs. MD Programs?
No matter what type of program you’re applying for, you’ll need the same academic and extracurricular prerequisites. Specifically, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree, take the MCAT, and have relevant extracurricular experience (i.e., research, volunteering, lab work). When you do apply, you’ll also have to fill out an application, request letters of recommendation, write a personal statement and supplementary essays, and prepare for interviews. MD applicants will apply through the American College Application Service (AMCAS); DO applicants will apply through the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS).
Despite the overlap, you will have to take slightly different approaches to the letters of recommendation and personal statement. MD programs typically require three letters of recommendation. At least two should be from science faculty familiar with your work ethic and medical interests. DO programs require two letters of recommendation. One should be from a science faculty member and one from a medical doctor (osteopathic strongly preferred).
Application Process (Continued)
Regardless of the program, your personal statement should definitely address two questions: Why are you applying to medical school and why are you qualified to be admitted? The essay will reflect on past experiences and the skills/qualities you gained from them. However, the key in writing a personal statement for an osteopathic medical school is to show how your experiences demonstrate the philosophy of osteopathic medicine.
If you’re applying to both MD and DO programs, you can write a singular personal statement and adapt it. However, you must put in the effort to make it stand out for the osteopathic programs. Avoid adding buzzwords like “holistic” and “comprehensive,” even though they’re relevant to osteopathic medical philosophy. Admissions readers will see right through a weak effort to edit an MD personal statement to fit DO program requirements. All parts of your application, including letters of recommendation and the personal statement, should be tailored uniquely to each type of medical school.
How is Medical School Different for a DO vs. MD?
In reality, there really is no difference! Both programs take a total of four years. The first two are spent in the classroom, where you’ll study subjects like anatomy, physiology, microbiology, immunology, pathology, and pharmacology. These “pre-clerkship” or “pre-clinical” years give you the foundation needed to succeed in your clinical rotations during your third and fourth years.
On top of clinical rotations, DO students must complete up to 200 hours of manipulation training focusing on the musculoskeletal system. It teaches students manual therapy and manipulation techniques as a means of diagnosis and treatment beyond what’s taught in traditional MD programs.
Throughout medical school, both MD and DO students will take exams that, once all are passed, qualify them to receive their medical license. MD students take the three-part United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). DO students can either take the USMLE or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) depending on school requirements.
How Does Residency Compare for a DO vs. MD?
Residency for MD and DO programs involves the exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking process of the residency match. In the past, MD students were primarily limited to matching with residencies accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), whereas DO students had the flexibility to match with residencies accredited by either ACGME or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). However, a significant change occurred in July 2020 when these two accreditation councils merged. This merger resulted in a unified accreditation system, effectively breaking down the previous barriers. It enabled both MD and DO students to pursue training at any accredited residency site, expanding their opportunities and enhancing the integration of the two medical pathways.
No matter the type of residency, the path to matching is intense due to several factors. These include the limited number of available positions compared to the number of applicants. Residency programs are not only highly sought after but are also specialized, with some being more competitive than others. Prestigious programs and popular specialties like dermatology, orthopedic surgery, or plastic surgery tend to be particularly competitive. Admission often requires outstanding academic records, research experience, and exceptional letters of recommendation. So, whether you’re an MD or DO, the residency match is the gateway to your future as a practicing physician.
What is DO vs. MD Salary Like?
When it comes to comparing the salaries of MD and DO doctors, there isn’t a massive difference that can be attributed solely to their degree type. Both MDs and DOs can pursue similar medical specialties and practice medicine in similar settings. This means their earning potential largely depends on factors like specialization, location, and experience.
In general, physicians in the United States tend to earn very competitive salaries. Specialists like neurosurgeons, cardiologists, and radiologists often have the highest salaries in the medical field. This is true regardless of whether they hold an MD or a DO degree. On average, MDs and DOs tend to earn comparable salaries across most specialties.
That being said, there may be some slight nuances. In the past, there was a slight income disparity, with MDs often earning slightly more. However, this gap has been narrowing in recent years due to the increased recognition of DOs and the alignment of training and certification processes. It’s essential for aspiring doctors to choose a career path and specialization they’re passionate about. While the financial rewards can be substantial in medicine, the journey to becoming a physician is a long and challenging one, and personal fulfillment is crucial.
Deciding Whether to Pursue a DO vs. MD – Next Steps
The decision to pursue the path of becoming a Doctor of Medicine or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine is a deeply personal one, influenced by your values, career aspirations, and the type of physician you envision becoming. While both paths lead to the noble profession of healing, they offer distinct philosophies and approaches to patient care. MD programs have traditionally been the more widely recognized route, providing a robust foundation in allopathic medicine. DO programs, on the other hand, emphasize a holistic approach, with additional training in osteopathic manipulative treatment.
Engaging in conversations with both MDs and DOs is invaluable when deciding which path to pursue. MDs offer insights into allopathic medicine, while DOs provide perspectives on holistic healthcare. These discussions help align your values with your career aspirations and offer practical advice, enriching your decision-making process as you journey toward a medical career.
It’s essential to remember that the medical field is ever-evolving, with increasing recognition and integration of DOs into the healthcare system. The decision between MD and DO should be based on your passion for medicine and patient care. When balancing the pros and cons of DO vs. MD, make sure to consider the specific goals you hope to achieve in your career. Ultimately, both MDs and DOs have the opportunity to make a profound impact on the lives of their patients. The choice you make is just the beginning of an incredible journey toward becoming a compassionate and skilled physician.