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M.D. or D.O.: Two Paths to a Healing Career
A physician is your partner in maintaining good health. Doctors provide preventative care, diagnose illnesses and injuries, and prescribe treatments that help keep you and your family healthy. In the United States, both medical doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine share a professional scope of practice and provide many of the same types of treatment and care. The differences between these two branches of medicine are rooted in history, philosophy, education and certain areas of practice.
What Is the Difference Between an M.D. and a D.O.?
If you look at a sign on the door of a medical practice, you may notice that for some of the physicians, the initials “M.D.” appear after their names, while others read “D.O.” While both types of doctors are licensed to practice medicine, those with an “M.D.” after their name have earned a doctor of medicine degree. Those whose names are followed by “D.O.” hold a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree.
Medical doctors are trained in what is called “standard Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine.” Osteopathic physicians, on the other hand, are taught a system that was developed in the late 1800s by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, a medical doctor who was concerned about the ineffectiveness of certain popular medical treatments of his day. Dr. Still began to focus on a patient’s musculoskeletal system, eventually developing osteopathic manipulative treatment, a process in which the physician uses his or her hands to palpate, stretch, and adjust muscles and joints. Ultimately, Dr. Still opened his own medical school and founded osteopathic medicine.
Since that time, the training and practices of M.D.s and D.O.s have become more alike than different. An osteopathic physician is still trained in osteopathic manipulative treatment and may place a greater emphasis on nutrition, stress-reduction, self-help, fitness, and alternative therapies such as herbalism or aromatherapy.
Both M.D.s and D.O.s are licensed to diagnose and treat illnesses, injuries and diseases. Both can order tests, prescribe medications and perform surgical procedures. In addition, both types of doctors complete residencies and enter a medical specialty, such as obstetrics or psychiatry.
What Is the Difference Between the M.D. and D.O. Training Programs?
Each branch of medicine has its own medical school. While more schools in the U.S. offer the medical doctor degree, more than 30 osteopathic schools currently operate in this country.
Admission standards for osteopathic schools are sometimes less competitive than those for allopathic medical schools. This is something to keep in mind if you, or one of your kids, has difficulty getting into a traditional medical school.
Since the scope of practice for an M.D. and a D.O. is the same, the knowledge and skills taught at each type of school are very similar. Osteopathic physicians receive 200 additional hours of training in osteopathic manipulative treatment, and the osteopathic curriculum emphasizes the importance of the musculoskeletal system.
All physicians must pass two licensing exams; one is issued by the state in which they wish to practice, but they must also pass a national exam. Both an M.D. and a D.O. take the same state exams, but M.D. students sit for the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), and D.O. students take the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX).
What Is the Salary Difference?
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break D.O. salaries out from those of an M.D. It should be noted, however, that a large percentage of D.O.s are general practitioners. Family and general practitioners generally earn lower salaries than specialists. For example, the BLS states that the median annual wage in 2014 for general practitioners was $180,180. This means that 50 percent of general practice physicians earned more than this amount, and the other half made less. The median salary for general surgeons in 2015, on the other hand, was $409,665. However, this difference is due to the type of practice chosen by the physician, not whether the doctor is an M.D. or a D.O.
When to Call Your M.D. or Your D.O.
If one of your kids isn’t feeling well, it may be a good idea to call your doctor. If your family has special circumstances, talk to your doctor or a nurse at the office about when it’s a good idea to call. Otherwise, pay attention to your child’s symptoms. Fevers, even those that are relatively low, can be a sign of serious infection in very young infants. If your baby is under 3 months old, call your doctor to report the fever.
Other symptoms that merit a call to your physician’s office include:
- A persistent cough that lasts for seven days
- Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
- Rashes that won’t go away, that leave the skin numb or that are accompanied by other symptoms, such as listlessness
- Painful urination
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Lainie Petersen writes about business, real estate and personal finance, drawing on 25 years experience in publishing and education. Petersen's work appears in Money Crashers, Selling to the Masses, and in Walmart News Now, a blog for Walmart suppliers. She holds a master's degree in library science from Dominican University.