Deciphering Letters Behind a Doctor's Name
MDs, DOs Difference Comes from Type of Medical School Attended
Recently, one of my colleagues pointed out to me there is some confusion about what the labels of DO and MD after a doctor’s name really means. I had not thought about the distinction since in every day medical practice I do not see a difference. I am not aware of patients making a distinction, but I did some investigating and will try to clarify the labels.
Doctor, by definition, is a label given to an individual who has earned a doctorate degree. It does not have to be in medicine. For example, a recipient of a doctorate in philosophy is referred to as doctor. When people refer to a medical doctor, they generally refer to someone who will evaluate, diagnose and treat medical conditions and help them in their quest to maintain good health. Doctors, who graduated from an allopathic medical school and earned a doctor of medicine degree, are referred to as an MD.
Doctors, who attend an osteopathic medical school earn a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, are referred to as a DO. What is the difference between allopathic and osteopathic? Simply put, both allopathic and osteopathic medical schools teach disease processes and treatments, but osteopathic medical schools have some additional training in manipulative treatments of musculoskeletal symptoms.
There are 125 allopathic medical schools and 33 osteopathic medical schools in the U.S. Because of that, there are more MDs practicing than DOs. However, there tends to be more MDs who specialize while DOs tend to be more likely to go into primary care. Both MDs and DOs obtain a bachelor’s degree after high school and then attend a four-year medical school (either allopathic or osteopathic). They then go on to a residency training program, which is in designated fields and can vary in length (usually three to five years) depending on the specialty. MDs and DOs apply to the same residency training programs and, once accepted, the training is the same. Some doctors may go for even further training, known as a fellowship. MDs and DOs have to be licensed in the states where they provide care and have the opportunity to be board certified in their specialty.
Not to confuse things, but there are healthcare professionals labeled as doctors who have not completed medical school training. These include optometrists, dentists, chiropractors and podiatrists. These providers have undergraduate degrees and then graduate from a four-year training programs in their area of expertise.
More and more medical services are provided in doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics and hospitals by physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). They provide care in collaboration or under the direction of a doctor. These providers are licensed to provide services, do minor procedures and prescribe medications. An NP requires a bachelor’s degree in nursing followed by two to four years of training in a master’s program to become certified. A PA requires an undergraduate degree and then a two-year PA training program to become licensed to practice. Some PAs and NPs take additional training to provide specialized services in anesthesia or other specialties.
In conclusion, for all practical and legal purposes, there is no difference in doctors based on the DO and MD designation. Doctors differ in their after medical school training, their experience and personality. Much work is done by hospitals and health care organizations to ensure that those providing care are licensed, credentialed and certified to provide the care that they deliver. Stay healthy my friends.
Michael Shattuck, MD, is a family practice physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Wautoma.