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  • Becoming a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)

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    Each year, thousands of medical students choose to become Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) rather than MDs.

    Given that osteopathic physicians comprise less than ten percent of practicing physicians, it is no surprise many people are unfamiliar with the osteopathic tradition.Yet, the D.O. field is a growing one and will soon make up a sizable portion of practicing physicians. DOs receive four years of basic medical education and must pass comparable examinations to MDs to obtain a practicing license. Becoming a DO can be an excellent career path.

    What is osteopathic medicine?

    Osteopathic Medicine has a more holistic approach to consultation, diagnosis and practice than the MD tradition. Osteopathic physicians are trained in traditional medical techniques, just like MDs, but they also receive additional training in muscular-skeletal manipulation.

    DOs may choose to specialize and attend residency the way MDs do. The majority of osteopathic physicians choose to practice in primary care fields, such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics. However DOs are also represented in every medical subspecialty, from surgery to anesthesia.

    What are osteopathic medical programs like?

    DO and MD medical programs have more similarities than differences. Both programs require an undergraduate degree and basic science coursework before matriculation. Both are typically four years in length, with two years of traditional science coursework and two years of clinical rotations.

    Both degrees will also prepare you to work as a fully-licensed physician in any medical specialty. In addition to over five hundred osteopathic residency programs, osteopathic physicians have the option of entering the National Residency Matching Program, the same residency-matching program as MDs.

    There are some key differences, however. Osteopathic programs have a strong focus on primary care and emphasize a holistic, preventive approach to health. All osteopathic medical students also receive training in osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), in which they learn how to use their hands to diagnose and treat illness. Many osteopathic physicians feel that OMT, while not supplanting traditional medical techniques, gives them something extra to help diagnose and treat their patients.

    Osteopathic medical schools, unlike their MD counterparts, do not have an affiliated teaching hospital. Instead, they partner with medical facilities and physicians’ offices in their local community. This model is great for students who want to learn in a variety of settings. However, it does preclude early exposure to research, cutting edge treatments, or instruction found in a traditional teaching hospital.

    Osteopathic programs are primarily focused on patient care, although there are some opportunities for research. Several osteopathic medical schools have started offering joint degree programs in public health (DO/MPH), administration, biomedical science and law. In addition, there are a few programs that allow students to pursue a DO/PhD degree. Students who are committed to a career in medical research will have more opportunities as an MD.

    How do I apply to an osteopathic medical school?

    Osteopathic schools use a centralized application service called AACOMAS. This service is very similar to the service (AMCAS) used by MD schools.

    To apply through AACOMAS, you'll need to submit your transcript, MCAT scores, and a half-page personal statement explaining why you want to be an osteopathic physician. You will also need to get a recommendation from a DO but letters of recommendation from M.D.s are accepted and regarded highly as well, so it's a good idea to search for a mentor as early as possible. There is a fee to apply, although some scholarships are available.

    Is osteopathic medicine right for me?

    Physicians who plan to practice in a primary-care field are often attracted to osteopathic medical schools because they tend to emphasize general care, preventive medicine and the psychological and social aspects of treatment. Students who are interested in alternative or noninvasive treatments also find osteopathic medicine to be good match because of its holistic and individualized approach to medicine.

    One final, but important, factor to consider is that prospective DOs should be prepared to be a part of a minority in the medical community since they represent only a small percent of American physicians. Osteopathic physicians must often explain—and sometimes defend—their educational background.

    As medicine continues to focus more efforts on primary care and preventive medicine, the opportunities for osteopathic physicians continue to grow. Whether you choose to become an MD or a DO, you will be most successful—not to mention happiest—in a program that fits with your personal philosophy and career goals. We recommend speaking with both kinds of physicians before you make your choice.