What is a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy)? Principles and Doctor Journey


What is a DO doctor? DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathy. A DO is a type of doctor who takes a holistic approach to treating their patients, with a strong focus on prevention as well as treatment. DOs consider the body’s interconnected systems and their influence on each other and employ different methods of treatment than an MD or Doctor of Medicine.

If you’re a premed, you know you want to become a doctor, and you may even have an idea of the specialty you want to pursue, but have you considered becoming a doctor of osteopathy?

In this post, we’ll break down what it means to be a DO, the differences and similarities between osteopathic (DO) and allopathic medicine (MD), and what it takes to become a DO. We’ll also share a list of guides and resources for premeds who are considering the path of osteopathic medicine.


What is a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy)?

A doctor of osteopathy (DO) takes a whole-person approach to medicine, which means they strive to truly listen to their patients and view them as partners in achieving overall health. Rather than simply treating their patients’ symptoms, osteopaths distinguish themselves from allopathic (MD) doctors by practicing holistic medicine, using a complete system of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Just like an allopathic doctor, they utilize the latest science and technology in their practice, can prescribe medications, perform surgeries, etc. They also have the same amount of medical school training and must pass the same licensing exam.

The major difference between osteopathic and allopathic doctors is that osteopathic doctors provide manual medicine therapies that treat the musculoskeletal system—your body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, and bones. These manual medicine therapies, known as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM), include procedures like massage therapy and spinal manipulation.

Notable osteopathic doctors include the physician to the president of the United States, NASA’s Chief Health and Medical Officer, and physicians to many Olympic-level professional athletes.


What Does it Mean When a Doctor is a DO? The Four Osteopathic Principles

Concepts central to osteopathic medicine originated with the ideas of Andrew Taylor Still, MD in the late 17th century. Still viewed the body as a machine with self-regulatory and self-healing abilities and believed that all elements of a person’s body, mind, and spirit should be included in their overall medicinal care. He founded the first osteopathic college in 1892, and his medical philosophy and general principles are still central in contemporary osteopathic medicine.

There are four basic principles in use throughout all of osteopathic training and practice, also known as the tenets of osteopathic medicine. They have been approved as policy by the American Osteopathic Association House of Delegates.

  1. The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.

The first principle reflects the whole-person approach of osteopathic medicine. DOs recognize that the different parts and systems of the body are interconnected and interdependent. Changes in mental and spiritual health affect the whole body, including all its systems and parts.

  1. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.

DOs recognize the power of the body and its systems to regulate itself and heal itself from injury. When disease is present, or systems are operating sub-optimally, DOs work with the body’s complex, homeostatic, and self-regulatory functions to restore its self-healing capacity and enhance the immune system.

  1. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.

This means that the structure of the body influences its function and vice versa. If there is a problem in one part of the body, that area’s function may be affected.

  1. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.

Osteopathic physicians understand these principles and use them in their medical practice to manage health and treat disease.


Doctor of Osteopathy Demographics

The American Osteopathic Association’s 2022 Report says osteopathic physicians comprise 11% of all doctors in the United States, with more than 141,000 currently practicing. Over 7,300 joined the workforce in 2022, and currently, over 36,500 osteopathic medical school students are on the path to enter the profession.

There are fewer female DOs than men overall, with females comprising 43% of actively practicing DOs. However, more and more females are entering osteopathic medicine. Over the past decade, the proportion of female DOs in active practice has increased by 18%.

Most DOs enter practice in locations near where they completed their medical training and many colleges of osteopathic medicine are located in underserved regions. This means osteopaths practice in almost every state. The AOA Osteopathic Medical Profession Report shares that the states with the most DOs include California (11,101), Pennsylvania (10,824), Florida (10,641), Michigan (8,910), New York (8,650), and Texas (8,171).

Primary care is a common specialty for osteopathic doctors, with 57% of DOs currently practicing in the field. This is because many osteopathy education programs emphasize primary care, and graduates tend to enter specialties like family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics/gynecology.

43% of DOs practice in other medical specialties, and DOs are present in all medical specialties. The top 5 non-primary care specialties for DOs include emergency medicine (10,474), anesthesiology (4,471), obstetrics and gynecology (4,305), general surgery (3,955), and psychiatry (3,950).


DO vs. MD: Osteopathic vs. Allopathic Medicine

Two types of doctors practicing medicine - DO vs. MD

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)SimilaritiesDoctor of Medicine (MD)
DOs take a holistic approach focused on treating the whole patient, not only their symptoms.

DOs are trained in osteopathic manual manipulation.

Most DOs practice in primary care.

DOs must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam.

Both DOs and MDs need a bachelor’s degree and four years of medical school.

Both must pass the MCAT to enter medical school.

They have the same requirements for licensing.

They can both practice in all 50 states in the US in any medical specialty.

Allopathic medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Allopathic is the most common medical practice.

Most MDs specialize beyond primary care.

MDs must pass the US Medical Licensing Exam.


How Do You Become Licensed DO?

Becoming a licensed DO physician is nearly the same as becoming an MD, with the same standards of rigor and excellence. The process generally includes four years of medical school, four years of residency, and licensing, plus additional training depending on the chosen doctor specialty.

Learn more about the complete doctor journey in our guide: Doctor Training Steps: How to Become a Doctor.

1 | Medical School

Doctor Path Medical School

Osteopathic medical schools are similar to allopathic medical schools in terms of the standards of rigor and accreditation, the process for students to gain entry, and the curriculum that is taught. There are currently 38 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine in the US, with 62 locations in 35 states. The 36,500 osteopathic medical school students comprise 25% of all medical students in the US.

Applicants must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and acceptance depends heavily on excellent scores and grades. However, osteopathic schools tend to be less competitive for admission, with a slightly lower MCAT and GPA needed on average for entry.

Instead of the more common AMCAS application service used by MD premeds, osteopathic premeds must apply to medical school through AACOMAS: The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. AACOMAS is the centralized online application service for osteopathic medicine. AACOMAS simplifies the process of applying to osteopathic medical schools, as students only need to send one set of application materials to the service. AACOMAS then verifies, processes, and submits the application materials to each of the schools students apply to.

There are subtle differences between these two types of medical school applications. Learn more: AMCAS vs. AACOMAS vs. TMDSAS Medical School Application Differences.

Once enrolled, both allopathic and osteopathic medical school training begins with two years of classroom-based training focused on building a core foundation in medicine, followed by two years of clerkships for hands-on training in various medical specialties, including family medicine, internal medicine, OB/GYN, neurology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and surgery.

Unlike MD schools, DO schools include 300-500 hours in the study of osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). This is the therapeutic application of manual pressure or force, and it is a generic term that refers to many different manipulation techniques, such as massage therapy and spinal manipulation.

Additionally, DO medical students must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA), while MD medical students must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

2 | Residency

Doctor Path Residency

Residency is continued training that prospective osteopaths complete after graduating from osteopathic medical school. Residency training prepares the DO to specialize in one field of practice, such as family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, etc. Depending on the specialty, residency takes between 3-7 years and 1-3 years of specialty fellowship.

Osteopathy has strong foundations in primary care, and many students of osteopathy go into primary care practice. Consequently, some residency programs (subspecialties in particular) can be difficult for DOs to acquire entrance to, and some do not accept osteopathy graduates at all.

3 | Medical Licensing

Doctor Path

All physicians in the US, both MDs and DOs, must be licensed to practice medicine by the licensing board in the state in which they practice.

Licensing requirements vary by state but require the successful completion of one or several exams. These exams are administered by the state licensing board. The licensing board may prepare its own exam or use one prepared externally, such as the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).

The state licensing board may, in lieu of examination, accept a certificate issued by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners. This certificate is awarded only after successfully passing a series of rigorous tests.

A physician who has received their license in one state may also legally practice in another state if that state exercises reciprocity or endorsement of the other state’s medical license. Reciprocity is not automatic; each state licensing board evaluates a physician’s personal, professional, and moral qualifications at their own discretion.

Finally, DOs can become certified by the board of their medical specialty. In the US, board certification can be achieved through the American Osteopathic Association or the American Board of Medical Specialties. The process of certification includes written, practical, and simulator-based exams.


Becoming a Doctor of Osteopathy

Whether you choose to pursue a career as a DO or MD, the journey is long and tedious. If you are considering osteopathic medicine, our team of one-on-one advisers can help you determine the best path for you.

Med School Insiders is committed to creating a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective future doctors. Our team is made up of DOs and MDs who have years of experience serving on both admissions committees, so you’ll receive key insights into the selection process. We can help with every aspect of your application, from MCAT tutoring to mock interviews to essay editing and everything in between.

We have a number of resources on our website designed to help osteopathic premeds navigate the AACOMAS application process.

If you’re further along in the process, we also offer services to help medical students succeed, choose a specialty, and get matched with an ideal residency program.

Sign up for the Med School Insiders weekly newsletter for the latest strategies, success stories, how-to guides, and breakdowns of industry trends.


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