Preparing for Medical School

What is osteopathic medicine?


Osteopathic medicine is a distinctive branch of medical practice in the U.S. that emphasizes a “whole-person” approach to diagnosis, treatment and patient care. Osteopathic physicians, also known as doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs), are fully licensed physicians, just like doctors of medicine (MDs).

DOs practice in every specialty area, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, dermatology, surgery, pediatrics and more.

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One unique aspect of DO education, and the main difference from an MD education, is additional training in osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), which is the therapeutic application of manual techniques (such as stretching, gentle pressure and resistance) to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury.

“I was very drawn to the philosophy of how to practice medicine from the osteopathic side,” said AMA Trustee Ilse R. Levin, DO, MPH & TM, in a January 2023 interview recorded as part of the AMA Update video series. “For me, it was really following that philosophy which called to me.”

That philosophy of osteopathic medicine includes always focusing on the entire patient with the goal not to cure a disease, but to return the patient to health.

Dr. Levin added that aspiring physicians tend to “self-select, not just for allopathic or osteopathic, but for the individual medical school as well. There are things about those places that call to us. And I think that's something that we should own and be proud of.”

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Academic training

In the U.S., two types of degrees lead to the practice of medicine as a physician: an MD or a DO. MDs and DOs have equivalent training and practice rights. DOs attend osteopathic medical schools while MDs attend institutions often called allopathic medical schools. 

The criteria in terms of the requirements to apply to MD and DO programs are the same, with both osteopathic and allopathic programs heavily weighing grade-point average and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores.

Upon completion of medical school, the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) is required for graduation with a DO degree. The test assesses the osteopathic medical knowledge and clinical skills considered essential for osteopathic generalist physicians to practice medicine without supervision. DOs can also take the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®).

Areas of practice

While DOs practice in all specialties, recent data show most DOs gravitate toward primary care. According to 2020–2021 figures from Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), nearly 57% of DOs practice in primary care specialties: 30% are family physicians, 19% are internists and 7.5% are pediatricians.

In a 2023 AMA interview as part of the Meet Your Match podcast series, Isaac Kirstein, DO, FACOI, internist and dean at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine Cleveland, notes that “osteopathic history is rooted in that primary care base of taking care of the whole patient. So, our students who come to us who are interested in a holistic care, tend to gravitate towards more of the holistic specialties, which is why primary care is so well subscribed.”

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DO vs. MD: How much does the medical school degree type matter?

If you are just starting out on your path in osteopathic medicine, figuring out a medical school’s prerequisites and navigating the application process can be a challenge in itself. The AMA premed glossary guide has the answers to frequently asked questions about medical school, the application process, the MCAT and more.

Already a medical student? Find articles and resources to help you succeed.

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Reviewed by: Isaac Kirstein, DO, and Kimberly Lomis, MD

Reviewed on: Oct. 27, 2023