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medical | opinions & advice | research & decide
Becoming a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
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Each year, thousands of medical students choose to become Doctors of Osteopathy (DOs) rather than MDs.
Osteopathic doctors comprise less than ten percent of practicing physicians. Given their small numbers, it's no surprise people are unfamiliar with the osteopathic tradition. But for many students, especially those who seek a broader or nontraditional approach to medicine, osteopathy can be an excellent career path.
What is osteopathic medicine?
Osteopathy has a more holistic approach to consultation, diagnosis and practice than the allopathic tradition. Osteopathic doctors are trained in traditional medical techniques, just like MDs, but they also receive additional training in musculo-skeletal manipulation.
While DOs may choose to specialize after medical school, osteopathic programs tend to focus on training well-rounded, general physicians. The majority of osteopathic physicians choose to practice in primary care fields, such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics. But DOs are also represented in every medical subspecialty, from surgery to anesthesia.
What are osteopathic medical programs like?
Osteopathic and allopathic 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 doctor 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 concentrate more effort on primary care, training strong general physicians before specialists. They emphasize a holistic, preventative approach to health. All osteopathic students also receive training in osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), in which they 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 allopathic counterparts) do not have an affiliated teaching hospital. Instead, they partner with medical facilities and doctors' offices in the 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, administration, biomedical science and law. In addition, there are a few programs that allow students to pursue a DO/PhD degree, although training and funding opportunities are limited. 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. It is very similar to the service (AMCAS) used by allopathic 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, 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?
Prospective doctors who plan to practice in a primary-care field are often attracted to osteopathic medical schools because they tend to emphasize general care, preventative medicine and psychological and social aspects of treatment. Students who are interested in alternative or noninvasive treatments also find osteopathy to be good match because of its holistic and individualized approach to medicine.
Many people who consider osteopathic programs do so because they are reputed to have less-competitive admission standards than allopathic programs. Osteopathic schools do have a reputation for looking past grades and scores; they place a strong emphasis on the whole picture of the candidate. This makes them particularly attractive to older students who have unique life experiences or who have tried other career paths before deciding to pursue medicine.
One final factor to consider is that prospective DOs should be prepared to be a part of the minority in the medical community. Because they comprise only a small percent of American doctors, osteopathic physicians must often explain—and sometimes defend—their educational background.
As medicine continues to focus more efforts on primary care and preventative 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 doctors before you make your choice.
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