Here’s How You Can Tell the Difference Between a DO and an MD

Hint: it has to do with education and training.

Ever show up at the ER and notice your attending doctor had a DO after his or her name? Did it make you wonder: what’s the difference between that and an MD?  First, don’t panic. Just check out the 50 things ER docs wish you knew. Then, rest easy! A DO is a doctor of osteopathic medicine: They’re licensed to practice medicine in the United States just like an MD (doctor of medicine). We spoke to New York City-based doctor and internet personality Mikhail “Doctor Mike” Varshavski, DO, to help us understand the differences between the certifications.

The-Difference-Between-a-DO-and-an-MDTatiana Ayazo/

How does a DO differ from an MD?

The first difference is education and training. “There are two types of medical schools in the United States. Allopathic, which train doctors of medicine, and osteopathic, which train doctors of osteopathic medicine,” explains Dr. Varshavski. “The length of education is identical, with four years of medical schooling in total. In osteopathic training, there is an additional focus placed on the ‘holistic approach’ (the body’s intrinsic ability to heal, treating the whole patient, and the focus on prevention), and OMT (osteopathic manipulative treatment), which is a hands-on approach to treating everything from pneumonia, sinusitis and headaches, to lower back pain.” And if your back is bothering you, you’ll want to check out these fast fixes for lower back pain.

Both types of doctors can practice any medical specialty. Still, osteopathic doctors often specialize in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, and OB/GYN. If you’re trying to find a physician, here 12 insider tips for choosing the best primary care physician.

And MDs have an advantage outside the United States, points out Dr. Varshavski, since they can practice in more countries. “The AOA and other Osteopathic organizations have been making strides in educating foreign governments on U.S.-trained osteopathic doctors. Currently, around 50 countries allow full-medical practice scope to U.S.-trained doctors of osteopathic medicine with an additional grouping allowing restricted practice.”

The-Difference-Between-a-DO-and-an-MDTatiana Ayazo/

How will my patient experience differ?

You might still be wondering if a DO’s treatment will be the same as an MD’s. Not quite, says Dr. Varshavski, but the difference is shrinking. “Unless your osteopathic doctor actively practices OMT (and not all do) you will likely not even be able to predict the degree your doctor holds,” he says. “It is very true that osteopathic doctors tend to practice with the whole-patient approach, but I believe that is what leads to the higher percentage of practicing primary care doctors. This is a field where you are actively learning about your patient and using that information not just to relieve symptoms but to prevent problems. This philosophy is instilled in most primary care residencies regardless of DO/MD recognition.”

So, are there times where you should choose an MD over a DO, or vice versa? “It is unfair to say one doctor is better than the other based on a degree, especially because we are all trained together during residency,” says Dr. Varshavski. Of course, he’s partial to the DO emphasis on prevention and treating the whole patient. “This is one of the great strengths of osteopathic trained physicians.” But he also likes the use of OMT, since it’s a low-risk tool for addressing injuries, illness, or dysfunctions. At the end of the day, says Dr. Varshavski, what really matters is how you interact with your physician. “I think in picking a doctor, you should focus less on the degree and more on their knowledge, bedside manner, communication, and patients’ experiences.”

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