When you see a doctor as a patient, you may have noticed that some doctors have an M.D. or some have a D.O. after their name. What’s the difference? Are both of them doctors? Can they both do the same things in medicine?

Or if you are a student who is considering going into medicine, you’ve probably noticed by now that there are M.D. and D.O. medical schools. Why are there two different schools? What is the difference between each? When you are done with medical school, what kind of options will be available to you? Which one is the best fit for you?

And these are great questions! I have had these exact same questions, both as a patient and when my husband was applying to medical school. As a patient I was wondering if seeing an M.D. trained physician was better than seeing a D.O. trained physician. When my DrH was pre-med he and I were trying to decide which schools we wanted to apply for. It was confusing!

Well I’m here to clear it up for you. So hang tight – here are the similarities and differences between M.D. and D.O. doctors.

difference between md and do

What is an M.D.?

The acronym “M.D.” stands for Medical Doctor or Doctor of Medicine. When most people think of a doctor, this is the kind that comes to mind. M.D.’s practice allopathic medicine – which, simply put, means they focus on the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases.

What is a D.O.?

First off, D.O.’s are doctors too. I know that is probably obvious to most, but you would be surprised at how many people I’ve come across that don’t know that. So a D.O. is a physician too, just like an M.D.

The acronym “D.O.” stands for “Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.” Ok, so what does osteopathic mean? D.O.’s receive specialized training in the muscular and skeletal systems and use that knowledge to treat problems in the body. D.O.’s are also trained to approach medicine in a more “holistic” way. They try to see the patient as a whole person and consider the person’s environment, health habits, nutrition, and entire body system when coming up with a diagnosis and suggesting possible treatments.

What can an M.D. and a D.O. do?

This part is important – pay attention to this!! You listening? Ok, here we go. M.D. and D.O. trained physicians can do the EXACT SAME THINGS. Yes, you read that right. They are able to do the exact same things as physicians.

Both can treat diseases. Both can prescribe medications. Both can be surgeons, anesthesiologists, GI guys or primary care physicians – in other words, both can be any kind of specialty.

They are both doctors that received almost the exact same training. Both M.D.’s and D.O.’s go to medical school for 4 years. Both attend a residency program that ranges from 3-7 years depending on specialty. The only real difference in their training is D.O.’s are required to have additional osteopathic training – i.e. muscle manipulation to alleviate pain or other symptoms.

Both can be any type of specialty in medicine. Both D.O.’s and M.D.’s are licensed by the same state licensing boards in order to practice medicine. In other words, they both have to meet the same requirements in order to be licensed.

Do They Make The Same Amount of Money?

Technically, yes. Whether you are M.D. or D.O. trained makes no difference when employers are determining your annual salary. Medical specialty and years of experience are what affect differences in income.

However, M.D.’s statistically work in large cities and pursue more training than their D.O. counterparts, which results in M.D.s usually making higher income than D.O.’s. D.O.’s tend to work in rural areas which have lower cost of living and therefore, lower paychecks. But this difference in paychecks has nothing to do with the initials after a person’s name.

Is There a Difference in Residency Acceptance Rates?

Typically, D.O. students have a lower acceptance rate to highly competitive M.D residencies than M.D. students. For example, it will be easier for an M.D. medical student to be accepted into an orthopedic surgery residency than a D.O. student.

The exception to this is primary care residencies, like family practice, pediatrics, and OBGYN. D.O. students tend to have the same acceptance rates to primary care residencies as M.D. students.

Which One is Better to See as a Patient?

There really isn’t a clear-cut answer for his – it’s completely up to you!! Just remember that both M.D.’s and D.O.’s are physicians and they are licensed to do the same exact things. With that in mind, you can focus on who they are as a doctor instead of the initials after their name.

Do you like the flow of their office? What are their wait times like? Does their personality mesh with yours? What’s their bedside manner like? What insurance do they take? What recommendations do you have from friends and family? These are the kind of questions I ask myself when deciding which doctor to see, not if they are an M.D. or D.O. physician.

I currently see a D.O. as my primary care doctor and I LOVE her. I love her holistic approach to treating me as her patient, that she takes time to talk and listen to me, and that her wait times are reasonable.

Which One is Better To Apply To As a Medical Student?

Again, It is completely up to you!! Does the holistic approach of medicine appeal to you or not so much? Think about which approach to medicine you prefer and which one you would like to be trained in.

Also, keep in mind that, statistically, D.O. medical schools are easier to get accepted into than M.D. medical schools.  According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, the average MCAT score for those accepted to D.O. schools in 2012-2015 was 26.85.  And according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average MCAT score for accepted students to M.D. schools in 2015-2016 was 31.4.

If you feel like you have a competitive MCAT score according to the stats above, then you can apply to either M.D. or D.O. medical schools with a fair chance of getting accepted to either one. But if your MCAT score is closer to the D.O. MCAT average, then it might be a good idea to focus on D.O. medical school applications as a safety net.

Also keep in mind what kind of doctor  you want to be. Do you want to be a highly competitive specialty – like an orthopedic surgeon, dermatologist or urologist? Remember that M.D.’s statistically have better chances of getting accepted into these kinds of residencies. Or do you prefer to go into primary care, like family practice, OBGYN, internal medicine or pediatrics? D.O.’s have the same chances of getting accepted to these residencies as M.D.’s, so going the D.O. route would be fine in this instance.

Remember, that at the end of the day, you will be a doctor. It doesn’t matter if you are in an M.D. or D.O. school – both schools lead to being a doctor!

**Image from Pixabay