What kind of doctor is a DO?

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After President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and began receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the spotlight on his personal physician grew especially bright. As Dr. Sean Conley’s updates on the president’s condition stirred great interest, so did the two letters after his name: DO.

What does DO mean? What kind of doctor is a DO? How are DOs different from MDs?

As a practicing DO for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that the differences aren’t drastic. But there are some distinctions in our training, practice and history. Let’s take a look at some of the questions you may have about doctors like me.

What is a DO?

DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Like Doctors of Medicine (MDs), DOs are fully licensed physicians who practice in all areas of medicine, from primary to specialty care.

What’s the difference between an MD and DO?

The typical patient isn’t going to be able to tell whether their doctor is an MD or DO. From a medical education standpoint, there’s really not a lot of difference. The primary difference is in philosophy.

DOs are more holistic, emphasizing a “whole-person” approach to treatment and care. We tend to focus more on the patient than on the disease, and we put great emphasis on preventive care.

We’re also trained in what is called Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM), also called Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT), which is hands-on treatments to address issues in the bones, joints, tissues and muscles of the body. I perform OMM on some of my patients, which makes me a bit of an anomaly—while every DO receives this training, only about 9% of practicing DOs use it.

Does that mean DOs are similar to chiropractors?

No. DOs are fully licensed physicians, whereas chiropractors are not. OMM is simply one tool in our toolbox of treatments.

What does a DO do?

While DOs practice in all medical specialties, they’re far more likely than MDs to go into family medicine. Our training emphasizes the interdependence of the mind, body and spirit and treating the whole body, which is in keeping with the philosophy behind family medicine.

How many doctors are DOs?

Nationally, we represent about 11% of all doctors and 25% of current medical students. In Ohio, about 16% of all doctors are DOs, and we make up more than one-quarter of Ohio’s family physicians. DOs are projected to represent more than 20% of all practicing physicians by the year 2030.

What’s the history of osteopathic medicine?

It was developed in 1874 by a doctor named Andrew Taylor Still who was dissatisfied with 19th century medicine and wanted to offer a more holistic approach.

Is there a stigma associated with DOs?

My father was a DO and a general surgeon, so I grew up knowing a lot of DOs. But when I was in medical school, certain states, particularly in the south, were suspicious of osteopathic medicine. It wasn’t until 1973 that the final holdout state, Mississippi, even recognized us as physicians. Now, Mississippi has its own osteopathic medical school.

The thought used to be that DO training was less rigorous, and that it was easier to get into colleges of osteopathic medicine. But that perception gap is closing. Today, there are 36 colleges in the United States that award the DO degree. In 2020, the once-separate MD and DO residency match systems merged, allowing both MD and DO students to apply and compete for the same residencies and fellowships. In fact, there are now training programs for MDs to learn OMM skills.

Today, osteopathic physicians are an integral part of our health care system. DOs practice medicine according to the latest science and technology.

We are no longer considered “alternative.”

Robert Gotfried is a family physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an associate professor in the Ohio State College of Medicine.