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What is a Doctor of Osteopathy?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.), more correctly called a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, is very much like a traditional medical doctor (M.D.), but receives additional training in the body's musculoskeletal system. This training teaches D.O.s to examine, diagnose and treat the body as a whole, rather than treating a single illness or symptom. A doctor of osteopathy takes a more holistic approach to medicine by looking at the body as a complete system, instead of placing emphasis on one particular part.

The father of the osteopathic movement is Andrew Taylor Still, M.D., an American doctor practicing in the late 19th century. By 1874, he had become disillusioned with the "modern medicine" of the time and its useless medicines and treatments. He felt strongly that the body had its own powerful ability to heal itself. Dr. Still was one of the first proponents of "wellness" and a healthy lifestyle through focusing on preventative medicine.

D.O.s are trained and licensed to examine patients, prescribe medicine and perform surgery like an M.D. To become a doctor of osteopathy, one must complete four years of undergraduate work, usually in a science field, followed by four years of medical school. D.O.s complete an extra 300 to 500 hours studying the body's musculoskeletal system and learn hands-on methods of diagnosis and treatment. D.O.s are licensed by the region in which they live, and in many areas can become board certified after a two to six year residency and completion of board certification exams. D.O.s can also choose to specialize in a particular field, as M.D.s do.

A doctor of osteopathy is trained to palpate, or to feel out what is sometimes called the body's living anatomy. The D.O. is concerned with how fluids flow throughout the body, the texture and movement of tissues, and the structure of the body. The emphasis is on the musculoskeletal system, which is the body's system of nerves, muscles, and bones. A doctor of osteopathy attempts to determine how disease or injury to one particular system or body part affects another.

Many D.O.s use a technique called Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) in addition to traditional medicines and treatments to treat their patients. They believe that stress and posture can affect the systems of the body and hinder their proper functions, thus causing disease and illness. Through OMT, they manipulate the body in certain ways to assist it in utilizing its natural healing system freely, with no hindrances. If the body is in the correct position, it can work to heal itself. D.O.s can release bones and joints that have become compressed, thereby affecting other systems.

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Discussion Comments
By anon329413 — On Apr 09, 2013

To answer questions below, yes, Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (not osteopaths, that is a separate profession) are licensed to be specialists such as otolaryngologists (ENT doctors) and are eligible to receive board certification in all medical specialties.

Anon272121 is incorrect. The training of Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) and Doctors of Medicine (M.D.) is basically identical today. Fifty or a hundred years ago? Yes, different, but that's no longer the case. Both undergo four years of education in the biomedical sciences in medical school, attend a residency to specialize, undergo the board certification process and go through fellowships, etc.

The differences are some subtle philosophical points (and it is debatable whether the two types of physician differ on these issues) and that Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine train during their medical school training to learn a form of manual treatment known as osteopathic manual treatment (OMT) in addition to the traditional medical curriculum. That's the difference and it's a minor one at this point.

There are even Doctors of Medicine who take CME (continuing medical education) credits and learn OMT as well. The notion that D.O.s and M.D.s are significantly different is antiquated and inaccurate.

By anon293581 — On Sep 26, 2012

Actually, what you have said is incorrect Anon272121. The training of MDs and DOs is nearly identical. There is a slight difference in philosophical emphasis and the addition of training in musculoskeletal manipulation therapies but both learn the core scientific disciplines of modern medicine.

Both types of physician are eligible for full licensure in all 50 states of the U.S. and are qualified to undergo the process of board certification and subspecialize and must go through rigorous training to accomplish this feat.

On a separate note, DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, not Doctor of Osteopathy (this is an old designation and is no longer the standard).

By anon272121 — On May 30, 2012

A DO is not an MD and they are not the same. They are similar to a point, but don't be fooled into thinking their training is similar. There are huge differences.

By anon180922 — On May 27, 2011

Are Osteopaths "real doctors"? I am unfamiliar with DOs and am needing a specialist (ENT Dr.) as I am having ongoing problems with my voice.

By amypollick — On Mar 22, 2011

@anon161675: Yes, she can legally and ethically do this. No physician of any kind, MD, DO or whatever, is obligated to keep treating any patient. It certainly might have been more personal to have had the conversation with you face to face, but there is no law that says that once you are a doctor's patient, that you cannot be discharged from their practice. You went to see her of your free will, she discharged you of hers. There was no legal contract or agreement that either one of you signed.

By anon161675 — On Mar 21, 2011

My DO mailed me a Discharge from Practice form letter that stated I was either not compliant or not putting forth the effort in the are and directives to achieve the results that are desirable and obtainable. It also stated my unwillingness to abide by the policies and procedures of the practice. Both are untrue. I have disagreed with her and was never informed of daily office procedures.

Can she legally and ethically do this? I've been a patient for about eight months.

By anon140864 — On Jan 08, 2011

my first visit to a DO was an eye opener. After he conducted a thorough exam and medical review of the course of treatment he was recommending, he pulled up a chair, put down his notes and asked me, "Now what are your questions? As long as we are going to be a team in maintaining your health, I want to know what your thoughts and feelings are." Wow!

I have since seen a board certified cardiologist(DO) and had my knee replaced by one of the most respected orthopedic surgeons in the area (oh yeah a DO too).

By kcmiller — On Oct 20, 2010

Actually, it is not easy to get into a D.O. school. For example, a reputable state-supported osteopathic school like the Texas School of Osteopathic Medicine won't interview you unless you have a solid application with 3.6 GPA and a 28 MCAT score with strong primary and secondary essays. Their graduates are sought after in all kinds of residency programs all over the country.

In fact, if you look up the Texas Medical Board, their president is a D.O. It's probably useful to think of a D.O. as an M.D. with extra training, since most coursework and clinical experience for D.O's and M.D.'s are exactly the same in their respective medical schools.

By anon93201 — On Jul 02, 2010

I go to a DO after being consistently misdiagnosed by MDs who insisted on looking at individual symptoms (hair loss, irregular period, weight gain) instead of all of the symptoms together (Polycystic Ovarian Disorder). I really do believe I get a better medical treatment at my DO, and she does everything an MD does, including using prescription medicines and sending me to specialists when needed.

She just also talks about food, exercise, massage, and alternative pain treatments for my multiple health problems. She also explains my diseases and disorders in detail, and discusses how my behaviors help or aggravate my various conditions.

By anon86646 — On May 26, 2010

would a doctor who could not get into a regular college but could get into a DO school like western university of health sciences, (which is rated as a one star by the way) be as good as a regular med school? i am questioning a certain doc who i have an appointment with now, and i am thinking i should chuck him.

By anon67359 — On Feb 24, 2010

i go to a D.O. as my primary doctor and i have a couple of specialists also. i think my D.O. knows as much as they do.

By anon64448 — On Feb 07, 2010

so why don't we have MDO's? Medical doctors with 'additional' training in Osteopathy? What training do DO's not get that they don't receive an MD?

By anon51898 — On Nov 10, 2009

After college, would a very talented student choose Osteopathy if that student had been accepted at a highly regarded traditional medical school?

My impression is that at least at the start of med school, students at the stronger traditional ones are brighter and more capable than those studying osteopathy.

While in med school, couldn't time be better spend learning traditional things rather than body alignment? What is the science on the success of procedures like manipulating bones and tendons in curing disease?

By anon34247 — On Jun 19, 2009

For GYN problems, would it be best to work with a D.O. or a board certified Gynecologist, M.D.? I went to a D.O. who wants to do a D and C and I don't know what to do now.

By anon27203 — On Feb 25, 2009

Between a physician of M.D and a physician of DO,

who has more knowledge, more training to treat their patients?

Thank you.

Juliette Phan

By anon3551 — On Sep 04, 2007

There are a notes about U.S. trained D.O.'s.

1. additional training in OMT is acquired during medical school, not after (that is what designates the D.O. degree instead of the M.D. degree).

2. I've never heard of "living anatomy" in regards to osteopathic philosophy or treatment, but I guess some schools might use it in their curriculum. I have heard repeatedly about "somatic dysfunction" which refers to impaired function of one somatic (tissue origination from the ectoderm or mesoderm) system by another.

Disclaimer... although I have referenced a few books (An 'Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment', DiGiovanna, et al., 3rd ed. and 'Foundations for Osteopathic Medicine', Ward, el al., 2nd ed.) I am a first year student medical student at an osteopathic school in the U.S.

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