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What's a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine?

It's easy to recognize doctors just by reading their nametags. After all, they have the letters MD (for doctor of medicine) after their last names, right?

But what if you see the letters DO? You might be surprised to learn that DO is an abbreviation for another type of physician: a doctor of osteopathic medicine, or osteopathic physician.

What's a DO?

According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), osteopathic medicine is a complete system of health care with a philosophy that combines the needs of the patient with the current practice of medicine. Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) practice a whole-person approach, which means they consider both the physical and mental needs of their patients. DOs strive to help patients be truly healthy in mind and body — not just free of symptoms.

This "holistic" approach to health care was developed by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, who feared that 19th-century medicine was doing more harm than good. Disgusted at the ineffectiveness of fellow practitioners during the Civil War, he decided to focus on the body's ability to heal itself and began to stress preventive medicine. He also identified the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health, stressing that muscles, nerves, bones, and organs are all interrelated. In 1892, Dr. Still founded the American School of Osteopathy in Kirksville, Missouri.

Manipulative Treatment

A key part of osteopathic medicine is a technique called OMT, or osteopathic manipulative treatment. In OMT, physicians use their hands as a primary tool to diagnose and treat illness and injury. This form of manual medicine lets DOs examine the back and other parts of the body (such as joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles) for pain and restriction during motion that could signal an injury or impaired function.

Although they sometimes focus on the back, these physicians are not chiropractors. OMT is a treatment very specific to how and where people injure themselves and how that injury can lead to symptoms.

DOs and MDs

Only two types of medical doctors are recognized in the United States: MDs and DOs. Both are licensed by state and specialty boards to practice medicine, perform surgery, and write prescriptions. Applicants to both DO and MD colleges usually have a 4-year undergraduate degree with an emphasis on science courses, and both complete 4 years of basic medical education.

Whether you opt for a DO or an MD, both are good choices when it comes to your child's health.

In fact, both DOs and MDs:

  • can choose to practice in a specialty area of medicine, such as surgery or obstetrics
  • complete a residency program, which usually takes 3 to 6 years of additional training
  • must pass comparable state licensing examinations
  • are equal in the eyes of the law
  • practice in fully accredited hospitals and medical centers
  • can order medical tests and perform procedures
  • must maintain a prescribed level of continuing medical education (CME) to remain credentialed and licensed

About 96,000 osteopathic physicians now practice in the United States. Because osteopathic schools emphasize primary care training, more than half of all DOs practice in areas such as pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and internal medicine.

To Find a DO

You can find DOs through the American Osteopathic Association, or through local osteopathic hospitals and state osteopathic medical associations. And many MDs and DOs practice together as members of the same group.

Reviewed by: Ryan J. Brogan, DO
Date reviewed: September 2016

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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