Preparing for Medical School

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

As you ponder medical school, you may be wondering, “What is the difference between an MD and a DO?” In the U.S. there are two types of degrees in which physicians can practice medicine: MDs, a doctor of medicine, or a DO, a doctor of osteopathic medicine.

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The two degrees reflect different types of medical school training. MDs attend allopathic medical schools, while DOs attend osteopathic medical schools.

The similarities

About a quarter of U.S. medical students train at osteopathic medical schools. That number has grown significantly in recent years, with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine reporting first year enrollment at osteopathic medical schools rising by more than 40% over the past decade.

In terms of the requirements to apply to MD and DO programs, the criteria is virtually the same, with both osteopathic and allopathic programs weighing grade-point average and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores heavily. The curriculum is largely the same structure, with students in both types of programs typically spending much of their first two years in the classroom and the majority of their second two years of training in a clinical setting.

Single accreditation, residency training

In the past, residency programs for trainees from osteopathic and allopathic medical schools have generally matched with residency programs through separate processes.

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In an effort to simplify the graduate medical education (GME) accreditation system in the United States, the organizations that accredit GME—the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA)—are changing how they do things. By 2020, all DO programs will match through the same process.

Those changes also impact licensing. Going forward, most residency programs will accept the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination, in addition to the United States Medical Licensure Exam taken by MD graduates.

Mind, body, spirit

Historically, DO programs have touted their methods as more holistic. One aspect of that is the osteopathic manipulative treatment, defined by the AOA as a “set of hands-on techniques used by osteopathic physicians ... to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury.”

Those skills typically mean that osteopathic medical students spend an additional 200-plus hours training on the musculoskeletal system in the curriculum.

“If a student is somebody who really enjoys that patient-centered approach and really is of the mindset that medicine is a mind-body-spirit relationship, a DO program will serve them well,” said John D. Schriner, PhD, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, one of 37 member schools of the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium.

Most DOs choose primary care

While MDs and DOs will be fully entering the same residency match process for the first time in 2020, some programs have integrated to the National Resident Matching Program’s Main Residency Match.

According to AOA 2018 figures, nearly 57% of DOs practice in primary care specialties: 31.9% are family physicians, 17.8% are internists and 6.8% are pediatricians.

By comparison, about 32% of active U.S. physicians with MD credentials practice in primary care specialties: 12.7% are family physicians or in general practice, 12.9% are internists, and 6.5% are pediatricians. That data comes from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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Which is right for you?

One admissions officer provides this tip: Don’t worry about the degree.

“People ask often: should I apply to an allopathic or osteopathic school?” said Benjamin R. Chan, MD, associate dean for admissions at the University of Utah School of Medicine, also a member of the AMA Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium.

“What I tell everyone is you should apply to both. Then if you get into both schools, just the same as if you got into two osteopathic schools or two allopathic schools, you need to do your research as a premed to figure out which is the best fit.”