It’s pretty common knowledge that becoming a medical doctor is hard work. It takes years of school and training before they are approved to practice medicine.
If you’re planning on going to medical school, you’re probably thinking about getting your Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. However, there’s another medical degree that many medical schools offer: the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
Both the DO and the MD qualify someone to be a physician, and both are valid pathways to becoming a medical doctor. But what is a DO vs. MD? And between the DO vs. MD, which is better?
Our article will answer those questions for you by:
- Explaining what is a DO vs MD
- Giving you an overview of the comparison between an MD vs DO
- Providing in-depth information about both the MD and DO degrees, including salaries and potential career fields
- Including a quiz that will help you choose between the DO vs MD degree
- Summarizing the things you need to remember about the differences between a DO and MD degree
There's a lot to cover, so let's dive in!
DO vs MD Overview
What is a DO vs MD? Like we mentioned earlier, both DOs and MDs are qualified medical doctors who can practice medicine in the United States. Having said that, there are some differences in a DO vs MD degree, which we’ll break down below.
Similarities Between DO vs MD
Although the names may sound vastly different, the MD and the DO have many similarities. Both degrees lead students towards licensure to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medicine. That means that DOs and MDs that pass their board exams are licensed to practice medicine in the United States.
Both degrees also require a bachelor’s degree and appropriate MCAT score for admittance. Once admitted into medical school, both MD and DO students will have to complete four years of coursework, rotations, and pass a final board exam to get licensure.
Additionally, both MDs and DOs are eligible to enter and complete residency programs. Both MD and DO degree holders can apply to residency programs through the GME accreditation system. Also, residency opportunities aren’t restricted by degree. That means people with DOs and people with MDs can apply for--and get accepted into!--the same residency programs.
Ultimately, the most important similarity between an MD and a DO is that both will set you on track to pursue a lifelong profession as a physician.
Differences Between DO vs MD
There are some major differences between an MD vs DO degree, especially in terms of the approach these degrees take toward practicing medicine.
An MD educational program usually focuses on allopathic medicine, which is a traditional approach to medical practice wherein students are trained to diagnose through certain tests and procedures and treat illnesses with pharmaceuticals. Some of the most popular fields for MD holders are radiology, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery.
In contrast, the DO’s focus is holistic, meaning that students are trained to look at the whole body instead of individual parts. There is also a larger emphasis on preventative medicine and alternative treatments for medical problems as well. Some of the most popular fields for DO holders are family medicine, pathology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and psychiatry.
Because of these different approaches to medicine, MDs and DOs usually take different licensing exams. MDs usually take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE, exam. DOs, on the other hand, usually sit for the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination, or COMLEX, test. Having said that, DOs can also take the USMLE if they so desire, especially if they’re applying for a residency that requires that test.
MDs are typically what come to mind when people think of a medical doctor, complete with a white coat and stethoscope!
What Is an MD?
An MD, or a Doctor of Medicine, is a professional doctorate degree usually pursued by those wanting to become a practicing physician in the United States. An MD is the most widely-recognized medical degree by patients, likely because the majority of physicians choose an MD over other types of degrees.
The term Doctor of Medicine was first used in the 1800s to lend credibility to the medical field through research, training, and licensure. This science-based approach is foundational to the field of allopathic medicine, where doctors treat diseases using drugs, radiation, surgery. Most of the MDs in the United States practice allopathic medicine!
Additionally, MDs are also the most popular medical degrees in the US. The majority of practicing physicians have an MD, and 75% of all medical students are pursuing MDs.
To give you a better sense of what an MD has to offer, we’ll go over an MD’s educational requirements, licensure, potential future salary, and career opportunities below.
Getting Into an MD Program
One of the toughest parts about medicine is getting into medical school. While the requirements for each school differ, there are some criteria you’ll need to watch out for if you’re going to be applying to an MD program any time soon.
After completing your bachelor’s degree, the first hoop you’ll have to jump through is taking the MCAT, or the Medical College Application Test. The MCAT is the test you’ll have to take in order to get into med school. It’s kind of like the med school equivalent of the SAT or ACT!
Like many standardized tests, you’ll need to spend some time preparing for both how to take this test as well as the concepts you’ll be tested on. That’s because if you want to get into med school, you’ll need to have a stand-out score. The average MCAT score for MD applicants in the 2018-2019 school year was 511.2. In order to differentiate yourself, you should try to score above the average.
It also helps to have a strong GPA. The average GPA for accepted med school applicants in 2018-2019 was a 3.72, so you’ll need to keep your grades up in college, too.
Keep in mind that there’s more to a med school application than GPAs and test scores. Most medical programs also consider things like reference letters, background checks, resumes, essays, and interviews when considering whether to admit a student. Make an effort to make each one of these criteria the best it can be, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting into med school.
For more information on the med school admissions process, be sure to check out our complete guide to becoming a doctor. We also have resources for college students considering a pre-med educational track!
Medical School and Licensure
If you’re one of the lucky 40% of applicants who are admitted into medical school, your work has just begun. Most MD programs require four years of coursework with rotations in order to obtain your degree. MD students usually spend the first one or two years in the classroom before starting rotations, although this process differs between schools.
MD coursework revolves around the allopathic school of medicine. This means that in general, MDs are trained to work on a case-by-case basis, where each new issue needs to follow a certain procedure for diagnosis and treatment in order to correct the illness. However, it’s worth noting that MDs are also taught about the body’s interconnectedness like DOs are, although this is not the focus of treatment like it is in osteopathic medicine.
At the end of medical school, MD students take the USMLE. This exam is taken in three parts throughout med school and residency, testing whether the student can apply their medical knowledge to real-life circumstances. Once you pass the USMLE, you are licensed to practice medicine in the US, but that score may also determine whether you graduate and which residencies you qualify for.
After graduation, MD students usually complete an additional one to seven years of residency to become an attending physician in your chosen field. Residencies are determined through matching, which is based on your USMLE scores, your MD grades, and your preferences for the residency programs that are available. On average, MD students have a match rate of 90.3%, meaning that these students were admitted to their top choice residency programs 90.3% of the time.
Complete your residency, take the Hippocratic Oath, and you’re on your way to a career as a fully licensed physician.
The MD Salary Scale
The average salary for a person with an MD in 2020 is $201,290. There are a few factors that may make this number lower or higher, including field, location, career experience, demand, and more.
So while becoming a doctor isn’t just a straightforward, easy process, but it’s also one that is worthwhile for the financial benefits...and what doctors can do for the greater good.
3 Top Careers for MDs
After your residency, you’ll be tasked with finding a full-time job as a physician, most likely in a field related to the one you explored in your residency. But if you’re just starting to explore med school as a possibility, never fear! You don’t have to decide what specific career you’ll end up in right away.
So, for some food for thought, here are a couple of the major careers for MDs. (Check out this article for a comprehensive list of MD careers.)
One of the highest paying jobs for MD degree holders is cardiology. Cardiologists deal predominantly with the heart and with the cardiovascular system, including diagnosing heart conditions, helping with preventative heart health, and suggesting and guiding cardio treatments. If you’re fascinated by what makes the human body run, cardiology might be right for you!
Neurology is another well-paying job for those with an MD. Neurologists work with the brain and nervous system. Neurologists often specialize in treating specific neurological diseases, like Alzheimers or Muscular Sclerosis, or performing neurosurgery. If you’re interested in a complex field that deals with the brain, then neurology might be right for you.
Another high-paying medical field is urology. Urology is more than just the study of the urinary tract. It also requires a thorough knowledge of the kidneys, the male reproductive system, and some neurology. Urologists help those with a variety of problems in these areas, especially when they affect the bladder or urinary tract. This field is ideal for those wanting to help people keep and maintain a high quality of life.
DOs are fully licensed medical doctors, just like MDs. However, they tend to emphasize preventative and holistic treatments to illness.
What Is a DO?
A DO, or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, is a professional doctorate degree that you can get in order to become a physician. Not as many people recognize the term DO compared with MD, but in terms of being able to practice medicine, the DO degree is just as valid.
So just like MDs, DOs are fully licensed physicians that can practice medicine in the United States!
The term “Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine” was coined in 1874 to differentiate between osteopathic and allopathic medicine (the medicine practiced by MDs). Osteopathic medicine thinks of the body as an interconnected system where things like lifestyle, environment, and other outside factors impact its overall health.
DOs can prescribe medication and do surgery just like licensed MDs, but most DOs prefer to focus on preventative and/or holistic medicine. DOs also use the “hands-on” approach more often than MDs, which is the practice of feeling and moving patients in order to diagnose and treat them.
Despite heavy growth in the last few years, DOs still make up the minority of medical professional doctorate degrees when compared to MDs. While there are roughly 860,917 active MDs in the US today, there are only about 69,581 active DOs.
Because it’s a less common field in the U.S., there has been a slight bias against DO degree holders in the past. However, this bias is starting to fade as more colleges are starting to offer DO programs, resulting in more doctors with DO degrees in the workforce.
The big thing to remember is that people with DOs go through the same rigorous training and licensure program as people with MDs. Just like MD holders, DOs are qualified medical physicians who are licensed to practice medicine in the U.S.!
Getting Into a DO Program
Just because DO degrees aren’t as common doesn’t mean they aren’t tough to get into. Like MD programs, each DO program is different...but you'll still need to have a top-notch MCAT score and GPA if you want to get in. Having said that, it seems slightly easier to get into a DO program than an MD, as the average MCAT score for applicants is 503.8 and the average GPA is 3.54.
The admissions criteria for both types of schools in terms of essays, recommendation letters, and resume requirements are largely the same, though. So as long as you’re improving all your admissions documents and overall scores, you’ll have a decent chance of getting in.
DOs go to medical school, just like MDs. The only difference is that they take extra coursework in Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment.
Medical School and Licensure
DO education is very similar to MD education. Like the MD, you’ll need to complete four years of coursework and rotations before you receive your degree. Both programs usually have you in the classroom for one to two years before rotations, but beyond that, there are some differences between the MD and the DO.
DO classwork contains all the same material that is found in an MD program, but with the notable addition of extra coursework around learning Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment, which is a core component of practicing osteopathic medicine. This extra coursework also touches on the holistic health of the body and how the health of each part of the body is dependent on all the others. Additionally, DO coursework focuses on preventative health and sometimes alternative medicine.
There are differences in the licensing process for DOs, though. Unlike MD, DO students usually take the COMLEX exam in order to get the license to practice. It’s worth noting that in some cases, DO students can get approval to take the USMLE. It’s important to know which test is more suitable for your career goals before progressing too far into medical school.
The COMLEX exam, like the USMLE, is taken in three parts throughout education and residency and tests readiness to become a knowledgeable, effective osteopathic physician. Likewise, the COMLEX plays an important part in determining whether students graduate from medical school or qualify for residencies.
Also like MD students, DO students must also complete a residency, usually lasting one to seven years. DO students have a match rate of 84.6%, which is slightly less than that of an MD student. This may be because the recent growth of DO students hasn’t led to a change in the number of DO positions available.
Once DOs complete their residency and take the Osteopathic Oath (note that this is different from the MDs Hippocratic Oath), they can start practicing medicine as a fully certified physician.
DO vs. MD Salary Scale
The average salary for a person with a DO is $163,908, which is about $40,000 less than that of an MD. A DO, in particular, is affected by job availability based on geographic location and experience. Also, jobs for DOs are still growing, so this number may change in the future.
As a whole, there are benefits and drawbacks to pursuing either a MD or DO degree. What really matters is your personal philosophy and which you think would better serve your professional interests.
3 Top Careers for DOs
The career path for DOs is almost exactly the same as that of MDs. The only difference is that because DOs are less common, there are fewer DO-specific jobs available. Having said that, DOs are still licensed physicians, so they can also enter fields where MDs are more common!
Now let’s take a look at three of the top careers for DOs.
#1: Family Physicians
As primary care doctors, family physicians are trained to deal with a vast array of potential problems in patients of any age, from infants to the elderly. Family physicians may encounter anything from the common cold in a baby to serious intestinal problems in a 40-year-old. As such, this career is ideal for those interested in interacting with various age groups and making connections with different generations of the same family.
Pediatricians are the primary care doctors for babies, children, and young adults. Essentially, pediatricians care for anyone under the age of 21 (although for some practices, the cut-off age is 18). Pediatricians oversee the general health and development of children throughout some of the most foundational years of their lives, making this the perfect job for people with a desire to build long-term relationships with their growing patients.
#3: Internal Medicine
Internal physicians, or internists, generally provide primary care for adults with internal ailments. Internists are not to be confused with surgeons, as internists do not provide surgery treatment. Instead, internists treat internal issues externally. Internists also can act as consultants to other primary care physicians who need additional knowledge on internal illnesses. DOs are incredibly well-suited to this field because they’re so attuned to how the different systems of the body work together.
DO vs. MD Quiz: Which Is Better for You?
If you’re still undecided between a DO vs MD, we’ve put together a little quiz below to help you determine which degree is best for you. Write down your answers and see your result at the end!
- Which do you believe is more important to public health?
A. Prevention of future ailments
B. Treatment of already-existing ailments
- Which statement do you agree with the most?
A. I believe the health of the whole body is just as important or is more important than the health of an individual body part.
B. I believe in treating the symptoms that are affecting a patient by focusing on the specific areas of complaint.
- Pick the option that best describes your philosophy on prescription drugs:
A. Medicine is one of many types of treatment for all types of maladies, and it should be prescribed only if it can be avoided. Medicine is just one type of treatment alongside mindfulness, lifestyle, and maintaining a healthy environment.
B. Medicine is the first line of treatment alongside therapy and surgery. Its purpose is to ease the illnesses of patients and should be used to help patients as necessary.
- Of the two, which option is more reflective of your personality?
A. I am comfortable being physically close to and touching people I don’t know or don’t know well.
B. I prefer to sit back and analyze a situation before making any choices or conclusions.
- Which one of these options best describes your wishes for medical school?
A. I want to learn as much as I can about the whole body, even if it means I may initially be paid less or have fewer options for careers.
B. I want to learn as much as possible as quickly as I can, especially if the end result is higher pay and more career options.
If you answered with more As, then you may be better suited to a DO career. But if you answered with more Bs, then an MD might be right for you!
Key Takeaways: What Is a DO vs. MD?
Now you can answer the question “What is a DO vs. MD,” but you may still be wondering which one is better.
For people considering DO vs. MD, which is better depends on your individual philosophy. In fact, some professors suggest students should apply to both programs to raise your chances at getting into medical school.
But if you’re trying to make the decision and remember the difference, here’s what you should consider:
- The MD is the more traditional degree that focuses on treating illnesses with medicine, therapy, and surgery.
- The DO degree focuses on holistic and preventative health by thinking of the body as an interconnected system.
- The process for earning both degrees is very similar, and both MDs and DOs
If you want to be a doctor, it’s never too early to start preparing for your future career. You can learn more about how to start your medical school journey while still in high school here.
Of course, you can also use your undergraduate education to give you a head start on the medical school process. Here’s what you need to know about the pre-med track that many universities offer aspiring doctors.
If you think a pre-med track is right for you, check out these 11 universities that have amazing pre-med programs for undergraduates.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.