DO vs. MD: Detailed Guide to Differences and Similarities

February 20, 2024
7 min read
Contents

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 11/3/23

Is there a difference between DO and MD? And if there is, does that make one better than the other? Do away with everything you may have heard about DOs vs. MDs, and read the facts about these two highly capable physician varieties.

Male doctor holding stethoscope

Upon graduating from medical school, students receive accreditations that signify their status physicians. Medical school students can look forward to becoming doctors of medicine (MD) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO).

We at Inspira Advantage understand that, while there are many similarities between the two, there are also some significant differences that you should know in order to choose the best path for your medical career.

So, how is a DO different from an MD? The primary difference is the philosophy behind each approach but, before we can determine the differences between an MD and DO, let’s take a moment to define each.

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What Is an MD?

If you’re curious about what the MD acronym stands for, it means Doctor of Medicine. Physicians who earn the MD credential attend an allopathic school. An allopathic school is a conventional medical school. An MD degree is what most people associate with becoming a physician. 

A doctor of medicine attends a four-year medical school where they earn their MD. After completing their school's program, allopathic students match into a residency, where they will train in their specialty of choice. 

What Is a DO?

Now, let’s go over what a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) is. 

According to medical terminology, a DO focuses on osteopathic medicine, which looks at holistic care. Medical students who attend an osteopathic school of medicine still become physicians.

Osteopathic medicine may be more unfamiliar than the allopathic path but DO students will end up working in the same places as those who attended MD programs. 

Like allopathic students, DOs complete their medical school program and match into a residency program. They can choose from a variety of specialties and will attend residency alongside MD graduates. 

What’s The Difference Between an MD and a DO?

There are some key differences between these designations:

Difference MD DO
Philosophy Allopathic medicine; focuses on the disease Osteopathic medicine; focuses on the whole
Application AMCAS AACOMAS
Education Learn how to treat disease with conventional medicine Learn how to treat patients with osteopathic manipulative medicine
Tuition Average cost of $39,905 - $64,103 Average cost of $52,740 - $56,762
Residency Must take the USMLE exam Typically take the COMLEX exam but may also have to take the USMLE

Let’s delve further into these differences!

DO vs. MD: Philosophy

As mentioned above, the fundamental difference between an MD and a DO is their differing philosophies. 

MDs use symptoms to develop a diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan via conventional methods. DOs also master the ability to diagnose and treat symptoms but they undergo additional training in manipulative techniques and take a more holistic approach to medicine. 

MD Philosophy

In medical terminolgy, an MD focuses on science-based medicine. Allopathy is the foundation of the MD philosophy. The treatments allopathic physicians implement include standard methods, such as prescribing drugs or administering X-rays. 

Physicians who follow these practices focus on symptoms displayed by the body. They will rely on medicine and scientifically based treatments to reverse the body's symptoms. 

DO Philosophy 

As the DO medical acronym suggests, they study osteopathic medicine, which differs from allopathic medicine. The DO philosophy contemplates all aspects of a patient rather than symptoms alone

Physicians who study this philosophy learn to consider the body's ability to heal and regulate itself. While these physicians are knowledgeable in conventional medicine, they also use hands-on, manipulative techniques to aid the body’s healing process.

DO vs. MD: Application and Education 

DOs and MDs will each learn about conventional medicine. Considering MDs are typically associated with doctors, a common question students have is, “is a DO a physician?” 

Yes! They are still physicians but they are taught an additional type of medicine. A DO’s qualifications match an MD’s, but they learn manipulative techniques to aid healing and the holistic conception of osteopathic medicine. 

This extra component means DOs and MDs attend two different school types—allopathic vs osteopathic—before uniting in residency. 

Osteopathic and allopathic schools have separate application systems. Once you have decided which philosophy you want to pursue, you will use the respective application to apply. 

DO Application 

Future DOs will apply to medical school using a system provided by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS). Students will need to fulfill the required prerequisite courses and extracurricular activities for their application. 

Prerequisites vary from school to school. Some schools require a certain number of upper-level biology courses rather than the traditionally required courses alone. Pre-med majors will typically fulfill the prerequisites needed for both DO and MD medical schools.

Letters of recommendation are required to accompany your application. As is the case with prerequisites, the number of letters you need will vary from school to school. Currently, you can submit up to six letters to AACOMAS. They recommend sending any additional letters directly to prospective programs.

Also, some osteopathic schools will specifically require at least one letter from a doctor of osteopathic medicine. If this is the case, be sure to connect with osteopathic physicians to ask for your letters of recommendation for med school. Remember, you want your letters written by people who can vouch for your connection and commitment to osteopathic medicine. 

The DO application has four sections, made up of several smaller subsections, and AACOMAS tracks your progress through each. The categories are as follows:

  1. Personal Information;
  2. Academic History;
  3. Supporting Information; and,
  4. Program Materials. 

                  

Applying to medical school through AACOMAS may seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of wonderful online tools to guide you through filling in your AACOMAS application(s).  

MD Application 

Students choosing the allopathic route will apply using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). AMCAS differs from AACOMAS in its display, but it requires much of the same information. 

One key difference, however, is that AACOMAS requires you to match prerequisites to schools one by one, in addition to verifying your transcripts before use. While the AMCAS system will also verify your transcripts, you will need to satisfy your school’s specific requirements. 

You can view these elements by visiting the school's website or the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) system provided by the AAMC. You may find the AMCAS application helpful when it comes to extracurricular experiences. 

The system gives you the ability to determine your “most meaningful” experiences, meaning clinical or volunteer experiences. Marking an experience as “most meaningful” allows you to write in more detail about multiple experiences and why they are meaningful to you. 

An additional difference to consider is that AMCAS encourages targeted letters. You can upload up to 10 letters, which you must match to each school. You are not, however, required to submit targeted letters, but, if you are determined to attend a particular school, including a targeted letter can strengthen your application. 

Differences in Application Fees

Both applications come with significant fees

AMCAS charges a processing fee, which includes submission to one school. Additional programs can be added, but each program included on your application will incur a fee after the first school. AACOMAS uses a similar fee structure. 

Both AACOMAS and AMCAS have fee assistance options in place. 

Differences in The Schools

Osteopathic and allopathic medical schools give students an equally thorough education in medicine's basic principles. Because students will learn the same foundations for their medical training, both schools’ general prerequisite courses are similar. 

Allopathic students do not receive the training in manipulative techniques that osteopathic students receive. Although based on conventional medicine, the allopathic curriculum content will vary slightly from school to school. Both allopathic and osteopathic students can look forward to a robust, challenging curriculum. 

According to the AACOM, osteopathic students spend approximately 200 hours or more learning osteopathic manipulative medicine. Skills acquired during this training will allow students to treat and diagnose symptoms using their hands and conventional means. 

Allopathic students study how to diagnose and treat symptoms using medicine rather than their hands. 

DOs have a range of institutional options. If you are considering the DO path, make sure you familiarize yourself with the best osteopathic medical school before you begin applying. 

MD vs. DO: Tuition Costs

According to the AACOM, the average first-year tuition and fees of an osteopathic program are $56,762 for out-of-state applicants and $52,740 for in-state candidates

For allopathic programs, the AAMC reports that a first-year student’s tuition and student fees are as follows, on average:

School Type Location Average Tuition
Private In-State $62,570
Private Out-of-State $64,103
Public In-State $39,905
Public Out-of-State $63,718

Both programs will also incur costs beyond their tuition. For example, the University of New England notes that, aside from the $68,050 of “Total Direct Costs” for its DO program, you should expect to pay additional “Indirect Costs.” For your first year of study, the school estimates you’ll spend around:

  • Room and Board: $22,200; 
  • Transportation/Travel costs: $4,800; and, 
  • Personal/Miscellaneous costs: $4,200. 

If you’re concerned about funding your medical degree, consider researching the numerous medical school scholarships and financial aid options

DO vs. MD: Practice, Residency, Lifestyle 

Unsurprisingly, the practice, residency, and lifestyle experiences of DOs and MDs have both similarities and differences. 

Practice

Medically, what a DO is differs from what an MD is, but their practices and lifestyles tend to be similar. While DOs rely on their additional training when conventional medicine techniques do not completely resolve symptoms, MDs will use their allopathic studies and experiences in their practices. 

Allopathic and osteopathic physicians enter the workforce with the same clinical medical knowledge but different approaches. Osteopathic students train with great emphasis placed on analyzing the whole patient rather than the symptoms alone. They may take more time learning about their patients’ lifestyles and health-impacting habits. 

Allopathic physicians also receive training that teaches them to consider multiple elements of their patients’ health. Their focus will be on narrowing down diagnoses based on symptoms present during a patient's visit. 

Residency 

Both DOs and MDs can practice medicine to the fullest extent as licensed physicians. Formerly, DOs and MDs applied for residency through two different systems. These systems were the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). 

Medical students in both school types will apply for residency through the ACGME. In the past, osteopathic students had to submit two separate applications because they applied to the AOA and ACGME separately. Osteopathic students were also presented differently from allopathic students in the ACGME applicant pool. 

Fortunately, the residency application has merged, and students are reviewed more uniformly. 

Another issue osteopathic students faced was different board exams. The COMLEX exam is part of the osteopathic graduation process. The USMLE is part of the allopathic graduation process. Previously, the ACGME did not officially recognize the COMLEX board exam as an equal alternative to the USMLE board exam. 

In recent years, however, the ACGME has acknowledged the COMLEX board exam as equivalent to the USMLE. Many residency programs now accept the COMLEX exam, but some may still require the USMLE. 

Students will be able to partake in the National Residency Match Program’s match process, known as “The Match.” Exciting yet frightening, Match Day is a rite of passage for many graduating medical students. Now, all medical students can partake in the fear and splendor of Match Day equally. 

Lifestyle

DOs and MDs can choose from the same specialties. You will find them working in roles like primary care physicians, dermatologists, and surgeons. They are equally qualified to administer medications, order follow-up tests, make diagnoses, and treat ailments. 

DOs and MDs have equal responsibilities and decision-making power. Each physician type obtains full licensure. Whether you choose to become a DO or MD, you will experience the entire physician lifestyle. 

DO vs. MD: Career Outlook and Salary   

Both MDs and DOs have fantastic career outlooks and salaries, but several key differences exist between the two paths. Let’s explore the career and salary options between an MD and a DO. 

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, physicians' projected career outlook is the same as any other occupation. The job outlook for physicians and surgeons is considered adequate;  demand for both is expected to grow by three percent over the next several years. 

Physicians' employment opportunities may be more generous in certain areas, such as rural communities that are medically underserved. As the population ages and experiences the health effects of advanced age, the need for physicians is expected to increase.

The main factor in career prospects for medical school graduates is matching into a residency program. The residency merger's benefit for DO applicants was proven in its introductory year, with the highest DO match rate reported since 1992. The post-merge match rate for MD applicants remained within the average range. 

According to the NRMP, the match rate for PGY-1 positions, postgraduate year or first year of residency,  was 93 percent for DO seniors and 93 percent for MD seniors. Those who do not fully match can undergo a process called SOAP. The SOAP process places unmatched students into unfilled programs. 

Differences in Salary

You may be wondering: who has a higher salary, a DO or MD? Well, we have your answer. To put it simply, the salary for DO and MD physicians will not differ due to their credentials. 

Physician salaries will only vary based on specialty. For example, pediatrics tend to earn less than other specialties, with a reported average annual income of $232,000. Orthopedics is often paid a higher salary, with an average of $511,000 annually. 

Keep in mind that higher-salary specialties will be more challenging to enter and often require an extended residency in addition to possible fellowships. For example, general pediatric residencies are typically three years. Orthopedics residencies are, on average, five years.

It is, of course, natural to be curious about the financial soundness of your decision because it is no secret that medical school is expensive. However, regardless of pay, finances should not be the driving force if you do decide to work in a care-focused role. 

Source: (Kane, Medscape)

DO vs. MD: Which Is Better? Tips for Choosing Between the Two

Picking your healthcare route is one of the most important decisions you'll ever make in your life. Your medical school route will shape you as a physician in various ways. This is why it's critical that you make your decision based on which path resonates with you most. 

Neither path is necessarily better than the other; institutions have effectively equalized allopathic and osteopathic schools. To help you come to a decision, here is a comparison of the benefits and drawbacks of a DO and MD. 

Decide Which Philosophy You Identify With 

If you view health as vastly interconnected with lifestyle and would like to get to the root of a problem, DO school may be right for you. Understanding the cause of symptoms is one of the goals of osteopathic medical training. 

If you believe you would like to use symptoms to chisel down to a diagnosis, then an MD school may be right for you. Allopathic medical training will teach you to offset exhibited symptoms using medicines and conventional therapies. 

You may ultimately discuss lifestyle changes, but you may not be trained to innately emphasize that aspect when speaking with patients. 

Determine Whether You’re OK with Taking Two Board Exams 

While most residency programs accept the COMLEX, a few may still require you to take the USMLE to be competitive. So, you may have to sit two board exams. 

If you choose the DO route, you will be obligated to take the COMLEX to graduate from your program.

Consider Their Match Rates 

Allopathic students do have a marginally higher match rate. This difference may continue to decrease each year. Still, the match difference is something to be aware of, especially if you hope to enter a highly specialized residency program. These residencies are, generally, more challenging to enter. 

DO vs. MD FAQs

Below, we’ve answered several questions to help you further understand the differences between a DO and an MD. 

1. What is the Difference Between DO and MD?

The difference between a DO and an MD is largely their differing philosophies. Where DOs take a more holistic, or osteopathic, approach to medicine, MDs follow the allopathic approach. One approach is not superior to the other, they are simply different and tackle health differently.   

2. Why Get a DO Instead of an MD?

One of the major appeals to the osteopathic profession is that DOs believe in full-body healing, or the idea that the body has an innate ability to heal itself. They also believe in body connectivity, or that health and the body affect and are affected by the environment and lifestyle. 

They, therefore, work with their patients in a way that emphasizes comprehensive healing, the entire body, and the connectivity of the patient’s body to their entire life.  

3. Is a DO Better than an MD?

A DO is not better than an MD. People, doctors, and patients alike, may simply prefer one to the other. 

Do your research to figure out which philosophy—osteopathic or allopathic—is the better choice for you.  

4. Is it Easier to Become a DO than an MD? 

The average MCAT score for students accepted into an osteopathic medicine program is 503.83, based on the most recent matriculant profile reported by AACOM. The average MCAT is 511.5 for an allopathic medicine matriculant, according to the AAMC. 

If you are viewing the level of ease solely from an MCAT standpoint, attending a DO school may appear more manageable. Keep in mind that many factors, like GPA requirements, go into acceptance at both medical school styles.

5. Can I Learn Osteopathic Manipulative Techniques (OMT) if I Choose an MD School?

Yes. MDs interested in learning OMT may join an ACGME residency program awarded osteopathic recognition. Some osteopathic schools may also provide continuing medical education courses that offer training in OMT. 

6. Can DOs Become Surgeons?

Yes, DOs can become surgeons of all types, including plastic surgeons and orthopedic surgeons. Remember — these positions will take hard work, extraordinary effort, and dedication to match into, no matter which credentials you obtain. 

7. Will People Know if I am a DO Instead of an MD?

Typically, your patients will not notice whether you are a DO or an MD. 

To most patients, you will be a physician. A difference is not likely to be perceived unless you make them aware or they see your DO credential printed somewhere. You will be addressed by those you work with as "Doctors." A difference in care provided by DOs and MDs will be challenging to detect unless you are using OMM. 

8. Do DOs Take the USMLE?

DOs don’t have to take the USMLE. But you may need to sit it to be competitive for specific residency programs.

9. Is There a Difference in the Prestige of a DO and MD?

In terms of prestige, MDs and DOs are equal; both occupations are highly respected, supported by in-depth training, and have a fantastic career outlook. But one thing to note is that some countries do not recognize the DO qualification as equivalent to the MD.  

DO vs. MD: Which Is Best for You?

Neither an MD nor a DO is superior to the other; both track and treat patients, save lives, and offer brilliant career prospects. Although each occupation takes a different approach to helping people, both professions study conventional medicine. 

Ultimately, your decision to attend ​​medical school vs. osteopathic school depends largely on your preferred approach to healthcare.  

There are some fundamental differences between a DO and an MD. Which is better suited to your skills, interests, and career aspirations is something only you can determine, but the good news is there is no wrong decision. 

So, while there are a ton of reasons to choose between osteopathic medicine and allopathic medicine, ultimately, that choice is entirely up to you and your preferences.

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