Comparison of MD and DO in the United States

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Osteopathic medicine
in the United States

Andrew Taylor Still (founder)

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

Medicine · US Medical education

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Schools · Physicians

Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine


MD & DO Comparison

Specialty Colleges · AOA BOS

In the United States, there are two types of physicians that practice medicine. Most physicians hold the Doctor of Medicine degree (MD), while osteopathic physicians hold the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (DO).[1] Other than teaching osteopathic manipulative medicine, the medical training for an MD and DO is virtually indistinguishable.[1][2] DO physicians complete conventional residencies in hospitals and training programs, are licensed in all states, and have rights and responsibilities, such as military service, that are identical to MD physicians and surgeons.[3]


In 2005, Jordan Cohen, MD, the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) stated:

After more than a century of often bitterly contentious relationships between the osteopathic and allopathic medical professions, we now find ourselves living at a time when osteopathic and allopathic graduates are both sought after by many of the same residency programs; are in most instances both licensed by the same licensing boards; are both privileged by many of the same hospitals; and are found in appreciable numbers on the faculties of each other's medical schools.[4]

The American Medical Association's current definition of a physician is "an individual who has received a 'Doctor of Medicine' or a 'Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine' degree or an equivalent degree following successful completion of a prescribed course of study from a school of medicine or osteopathic medicine."[5]


Medical training[edit]

There are significantly more MDs than DOs, though the share of DOs is increasing.[6] Of first-year students matriculating in 2014, 25.0% (6,786 students) entered DO medical programs and 75.0% (20,343 students) entered MD programs.[7] The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that from 2014 to 2019, first-year DO student enrollment will increase by 14.6% versus a 4.7% increase in MD students.[7]

Of the 829,914 physicians actively practicing in the United States in 2013, 7.3% hold a DO degree, 67.4% hold a MD degree granted in the U.S., and 24.2% are international medical graduates.[6] The percentage of physicians that hold a DO degree varies by specialty, with the greatest representation in Family Medicine/General Practice (16.5% of general practitioners), Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (13.6%), and Emergency Medicine (11.3%).[6] 8.3% of residents and fellows in ACGME (MD) training programs hold a DO degree.[6] 54% of DO graduates enrolled in post-doctoral training are in ACGME programs.[8]

Geographic distribution[edit]

The geographic distribution of both MD and DO physicians is not uniform. As of 2012, the states with the greatest share of active physicians holding a DO degree are Oklahoma (20.7% of physicians), Iowa, Michigan, Maine, and West Virginia. DO holders were least represented in the active physician populations of Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut.[9] The states with the greatest per capita number of DO physicians are Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Iowa. The states with the greatest per capita number of MD physicians are Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut.[9]


The sex and racial distribution of DOs and MDs are similar.[10] Between 1980 and 2005, the annual number of new MDs remained stable at around 16,000. During the same period, the number of new DOs increased by more than 200% (from about 1,150 to about 2,800).[11] The number of new MDs per 100,000 people fell from 7.5 to 5.6, while the number of new DOs per 100,000 rose from 0.4 to 0.8.[11]

A 2012 survey of students applying to both U.S. MD and DO schools found that 46% were admitted only to a DO school, 9% were admitted only to an MD school, 26% were admitted to both, and 19% were not admitted to any medical schools.[12] Geographic location was the top reason given by both DO and MD students for choosing the school in which they enrolled.[12] The college's approach to learning and teaching and the college's reputation were highly ranked by respondents attending DO medical schools.[12]

Cultural differences[edit]

Patient interactions[edit]

Some authors describe subjective distinctions in patient interactions. Avery Hurt writes, "In actual practice, the variations between the two types of physicians are often so slight as to be unnoticeable to patients, and a day in the life of each can appear indistinguishable. But the differences are there, subtle but deep."[13]

Several studies have investigated these differences. A study conducted in 2003-04 analyzed patient visits to general and family medicine physicians in the U.S., including 65 million visits to DOs and 277 million visits to MDs. It found that there was no significant difference between DOs and MDs with regard to time spent with patients and preventive medicine services.[14]

A small study of 18 physicians compared patient interactions and found that osteopathic physicians were more likely to use patients' first names and to discuss the social, family and emotional impact of illnesses.[15] For example, 66% of DOs discussed a patient's emotional state, compared with 32% of MDs. Only four of the 26 characteristics tested resulted in a statistically significant difference between the DO and MD patient interactions.


A Harvard study conducted in 1993-94 found significant differences in the attitudes of DOs and MDs. The study found that 40.1% of MD students and physicians described themselves as "socioemotionally" oriented over "technoscientific" orientation. 63.8% of their DO counterparts self-identified as socioemotional.[10]

One study of DOs attempted to investigate their perceptions of differences in philosophy and practice between themselves and their MD counterparts. 88% of the respondents had a self-identification as osteopathic physicians, but less than half felt their patients identified them as such. The study asked respondents to identify points of philosophical and practical difference between DOs and MDs; no more than 1/3 of respondents could agree on any single such point of difference.[16]


As the training of DOs and MDs becomes less distinct, some have expressed concern that their unique characteristics will be lost.[17] Others welcome the rapprochement and already consider modern medicine to be the type of medicine practiced by both "MD and DO type doctors."[18] One persistent difference is the respective acceptance of the terms "allopathic" and "osteopathic." DO medical schools and organizations all include the word osteopathic in their names, and such groups actively promote an "osteopathic approach" to medicine. While "osteopathy" was a term used by its founder AT Still in the 19th century to describe his new philosophy of medicine, "allopathic medicine" was originally a derogatory term coined by Samuel Hahnemann to contrast the conventional medicine of his day with his alternative system of homeopathic medicine.[19][20] Today, the term "allopathic physician" is used infrequently, usually in discussions relating to osteopathic medicine or alternative medicine. Some authors argue that the term should be dropped altogether, since its original meaning bears little relevance to the current practice of modern medicine[21] and conventional medicine has never endorsed any principle of allopathy.[22] Similarly, the use of the terms "osteopath" and "osteopathy" are now discouraged when describing osteopathic physicians that have earned the degree of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and the field of osteopathic medicine, respectively.[23]

Medical education and training[edit]

Medical schools[edit]

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) accredits the 144 U.S. medical schools that award the MD degree,[24][25] while the American Osteopathic Association (AOA)'s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) accredits the 30 osteopathic medical schools in 42 locations in the U.S. that award the DO degree.[26]

Michigan State University and Rowan University are the only universities that have both MD and DO accredited programs.[27] In 2009, Kansas City University proposed starting a dual MD/DO program in addition to the existing DO program,[28] and the University of North Texas, explored the possibility of starting independent MD program that would be offered alongside the DO program.[27] Both proposals were met with controversy. Proponents argued that adding an MD program would lead to more local residencies created, and improve the university’s ability to acquire research funding and state funding. Opponents argue that adding the MD programs could cause the osteopathic program to lose its focus on "holistic care," would result in more competition for the already limited number of existing residencies (if more were not opened), and would drain resources from the established osteopathic programs.

61% of graduating seniors at osteopathic medical schools evaluated that over half of their required in-hospital training was delivered by MD physicians.[29] Overall, osteopathic medical schools have more modest research programs compared to MD schools, and fewer DO schools own a hospital.[30] Historically, osteopathic medical schools had associations with osteopathic hospitals, which were usually small, rural, community based hospitals.[31] However, in 1990s and 2000s, economic and regulatory pressures caused many small hospitals, including most osteopathic hospitals, to either close or join larger hospital networks.[31][32]

Osteopathic medical schools tend to have a stronger focus on primary care medicine than MD schools.[30] DO schools have developed various strategies to encourage their graduates to pursue primary care, such as offering accelerated 3-year programs for primary care, focusing clinical education in community health centers, and selecting rural or under-served urban areas for the location of new campuses.[30]

Osteopathic manipulative medicine[edit]

Many authors note the most obvious difference between the curricula of DO and MD schools is osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM), a form of hands-on care used to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury and is taught only at DO schools. As of 2006, the average osteopathic student spent almost 8 weeks on clerkships for OMM during their third and fourth years.[33] The National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that overall, studies have shown that spinal manipulation can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain and appears to be as effective as conventional medical treatments.[34] In 2007 guidelines, the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society include spinal manipulation as one of several treatment options for practitioners to consider using when pain does not improve with self-care.[35][36] Spinal manipulation is generally a safe treatment for low-back pain. Serious complications are very rare.[34] A 2001 survey of DOs found that more than 50% of the respondents used OMT (osteopathic manipulative treatment) on less than 5% of their patients. The survey was the latest indication that DOs have become more like MD physicians in all respects: fewer perform OMT, more prescribe drugs, and many perform surgery as a first option.[37] One area which has been implicated, but not been formally studied regarding the decline in OMT usage among DOs in practice, is the role of reimbursement changes.[38] Only in the last several years could a DO charge for both an office visit (Evaluation & Management services) and use a procedure (CPT) code when performing OMT; previously, it was bundled.[38]

Student aptitude indicators[edit]

Some authors note the differences in average GPA and MCAT scores of those who matriculate at DO schools versus those who matriculate at MD schools. In 2014, the average MCAT and GPA for students entering U.S.-based MD programs were 31.4 and 3.69,[39] respectively, and 27.21 and 3.53 for DO matriculants, although the gap has been getting smaller every year.[40] DO medical schools are more likely to accept non-traditional students, who are older, coming to medicine as a second career, etc.[41][42]

DO medical students are required to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensure Examination (COMLEX-USA) that is administered by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (NBOME). This exam is a prerequisite for DO-associated residency programs, which are available in almost every specialty of medicine and surgery. DO medical students may also choose to sit for the USMLE if they wish to take an MD residency;[43] however, if they have taken COMLEX, it may or may not be needed, depending on the individual institution’s program requirements.[44][45][46] USMLE pass rates for DO and MD students, respectively, in 2012-2014 are as follows: Step 1: 93% and 95%, Step 2 CK: 94% and 96%, Step 2 CS: 93% and 95% (however, only 56 DO students compared to 19,745 MD students were evaluated for Step 2 CS), and Step 3: 100% and 96% (however, only 24 DO students compared to 18,865 MD students were evaluated for Step 3).[47]


Currently, the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) accredits all DO residency programs and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits all MD residency programs. Graduates of both DO and MD medical schools are eligible to apply to ACGME-accredited residency programs through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). As of 2014, 54% of DOs in post-doctoral training are enrolled in an ACGME-accredited residency program and 46% are enrolled in an AOA-accredited residency program.[8] The most common reason (71%) given by DO graduating seniors choosing an ACGME residency or AOA/ACGME dually-accredited program was a more suitable geographic location.[29]

Since 1985, a single residency training program can be dual-accredited by both the ACGME and the AOA.[48] The number of dually accredited programs increased from 11% of all AOA approved residencies in 2006 to 14% in 2008, and then to 22% in 2010.[49] In 2001, the AOA adopted a provision making it possible for a DO resident in any MD program to apply for osteopathic approval of their training.[50] The topic of dual-accreditation is controversial. Opponents claim that by merging DO students into the "MD world," the unique quality of osteopathic philosophy will be lost.[17] Supporters claim the programs are popular because of the higher prestige and higher resident reimbursement salaries associated with MD programs.[51]

Over 5 years starting in July 2015, the AOA, AACOM, and the ACGME will create a single, unified accreditation system for graduate medical education programs in the United States.[52][53] This will ensure that all physicians trained in the U.S. will have the same graduate medical education accreditation, and as of June 30, 2020 the AOA will cease its accreditation functions.[53]

Resident specialty choice[edit]

There are notable differences in the specialty choices of DOs and MDs. One study attributes this to a difference in the 'cultures' of their medical schools, concluding that the "practices and educational structures in osteopathic medical schools [DO] better support the production of primary care physician."[10] According to one survey, 54.6% of deans of MD medical schools reported that training future primary care physicians was more important to their institutions than training future specialist physicians, compared with 100% of DO medical school deans.[10]

Steps to licensure[edit]

Medical school application service AMCAS/TMDSAS AACOMAS/TMDSAS
Years of medical school 4 4
Medical Licensing Exams (MLE) USMLE required
COMLEX required
USMLE optional
Residency MD (ACGME) One must be selected:
combined DO/MD
AOA approval of an ACGME program[50]
Board certification MD medical specialty boards Either DO or MD medical specialty boards

Continuing medical education[edit]

To maintain a professional license to practice medicine, U.S. physicians are required to complete ongoing additional training, known as continuing medical education (CME). CME requirements differ from state to state and between the American Osteopathic Medical Association (DO) and the American Medical Association (MD) governing bodies.

Professional opportunities[edit]

There are currently more MD schools than DO schools offering medical training in the United States. However, the DO medical profession is expanding rapidly, with approximately 1 in 4 medical students now entering a DO medical school.[7] Both DOs and MDs have the option to train and practice in any of the medical specialties and sub-specialties. One exception is the Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine specialty which is available to DOs who have first completed a one-year AOA-approved residency.[54]

Both degrees are recognized internationally as a medical degree. Accredited DO and MD medical schools are both included in the World Health Organization’s World Directory of Medical Schools.[55] DOs are recognized and accepted by international medical organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.[56]


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