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What Is an Osteopathic Physician?

You may have noted that while most physicians and surgeons have the letters MD after their name, some have the letters DO instead. What’s the difference?

MD stands for Medical Doctor, and it means that the person has graduated from a medical school and earned a doctorate in medicine. DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and means that the person has graduated from a school of osteopathic medicine with a doctorate in osteopathic medicine.

Osteopathic physicians practice in every area of medicine. About 11% of all physicians in the United States are osteopathic physicians, sometimes just referred to as osteopaths.

MDs are sometimes referred to as allopathic physicians and practice allopathy, although those terms are rarely used, and they were created by practitioners of alternative medicines. Allopathy can also be referred to as Western medicine, orthodox medicine, and mainstream medicine.

Your obstetrician may be an osteopathic physician. According to the American Osteopathic Association, a professional group for osteopathic physicians, there were about 4,500 osteopathic obstetrician/gynecologists in the United States. This is about five percent of all osteopathic physicians. Almost sixty percent of osteopaths are family physicians, internists, or pediatricians.

For the most part, there is little difference between a DO and an MD as far as how they practice.  Osteopathic physicians are licensed to practice medicine by state licensing boards. They can prescribe medications just like MDs. They may be members of the American Medical Association as well as the American Osteopathic Association. DOs and MDs may work side by side in the same group practice.

By the way, don’t confuse DO and OD. Someone with OD after their name is a Doctor of Optometry, a healthcare professional who is trained to examine the eyes, and who can treat and manage diseases of the eye and create a prescription for eyeglasses for you.

Like other physicians, after they received a college degree, osteopathic physicians complete four years of graduate studies at an osteopathic medical school. They then complete an internship and residency for additional years of study. After this, they can take further tests to become board certified in a specialty like obstetrics and gynecology.

The education of an osteopathic physician is extensive. In addition to all the courses that are taught in medical school, a DO receives extra training in the musculoskeletal system, which is the system of bones, muscles, and nerves. DOs are trained in osteopathic manipulative treatment, which is gentle pressure to move and adjust the muscles, bones, and joints of the body. It can be used to help correct imbalances of the muscles and bones of the body.

So, is a DO and an MD are so similar, what’s the difference? The primary difference is that osteopathy has a different philosophy behind it. According to the American College of Osteopathic Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it is a philosophy of health rather than disease. It approaches healthcare from a holistic, or whole body, angle.

The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine puts it similarly: “Osteopathic medicine is a distinctive form of medical care founded on the philosophy that all body systems are interrelated and dependent upon one another for good health.”

Osteopathy dates back to the time after the Civil War when a man named Andrew Taylor Still served in the Union Army as a hospital administrator and surgeon. In 1964, he lost three of his children and his wife to spinal meningitis. After this tragedy, he decided that standard medicine was not helping make people healthier.

Standard medical practices in the late 1800s tended to be much harsher than medicine today, with physicians often using large doses of medications that contained ingredients like mercury, arsenic, and opium. These medications were often ineffective and were sometimes poisonous. Still started to research how the human body, especially the musculoskeletal system, worked. He came to believe that correcting the position of muscles and bones through a process called osteopathic manipulative medicine could allow the body to heal itself. He also started study in how to prevent diseases rather than treat them after they started. Still opened the first school of osteopathic medicine in 1892, which still exists as A.T. Still University.

Although osteopathic medicine started as an alternative to allopathic medicine, it has moved into the mainstream. Allopathic physicians and surgeons work side by side with osteopathic physicians and surgeons.

An osteopathic OB/GYN must complete four years of residency training in obstetrics and gynecology after graduating from osteopathic medical school. They may also follow that with a three-year fellowship in subspecialties such as maternal-fetal medicine, reproductive endocrinology and infertility, gynecologic oncology, or female pelvic medicine reconstructive surgery.

If your obstetrician is a DO, you will get the same care during and after your pregnancy as you would from an MD. During pregnancy, an osteopathic obstetrician may give you advice on your breathing, and show you stretches and exercises that can help prepare you for childbirth. An osteopathic obstetrician may also use osteopathic manipulative treatment in combination with the other medical treatments you receive.

The bottom line is that you can get excellent medical care from either a DO or an MD.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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