A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Vs. a Medical Doctor

In the United States, patients may be treated by a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) or a medical doctor (MD). Both types of doctors are fully qualified to treat patients, but they approach that treatment in very different, but complementary, ways.

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In 1874, Andrew Still, a medical doctor, founded osteopathic medicine. Still felt that the focus of traditional medicine on disease failed to appreciate the importance of wellness and the body's own ability to heal itself. Still developed his practice in Kansas and Missouri and despite initial criticism from physicians in the medical field, news began to spread of his successful techniques. By the end of the 19th century, he established the first educational facility for doctors of osteopathic medicine.

Treatment Philosophy

Although officially medical doctors have been in practice longer than osteopathic physicians, osteopathic medicine is inspired by ideas from Hippocrates. Similar to Hippocrates, Still believed that the body itself was a capable healer. He thought much of the medicine used during his time was doing more harm than good and that preventing disease was the most effective treatment. In other words, Still viewed disease in the context of the body as a whole, whereas traditional physicians saw the body in the context of disease.


Students of osteopathic medicine acquire the same amount of medical knowledge as students at traditional medical schools, but they also receive additional training beyond medical coursework. According to the American Osteopathic Association, central to osteopathic medicine is the function of the musculoskeletal system 1. Students learn special manual techniques, called osteopathic manipulative treatments (OMT), that were originally developed by Still. The techniques focus on the adjustment of bones and muscles in response to pain and illness. In addition, prevention of disease and a holistic approach to care -- viewing the patient as more than just a system of parts that can become diseased -- is infused into all aspects of an osteopathic physician's education.


Once they graduate with a degree in osteopathic medicine, osteopathic physicians undergo similar advanced training and licensing procedures to medical doctors. Both osteopathic and medical physicians must do a three-to-eight year residency in their chosen specialty. Osteopathic physicians receive their medical licensure from the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners. Medical doctors obtain licenses from the National Board of Medical Examiners.


The number of doctors practicing osteopathic medicine continues to grow 1. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, there are over four thousand new osteopathic physicians each year 1. As of June 2010, there are about 55,000 practicing in the United States, compared to over 800,000 medical doctors. A large percentage of osteopathic physicians practice family medicine, as well as obstetrics and gynecology.