DO vs MD? MD vs DO? what’s the difference?… (and other FAQs)

Why would anyone choose DO over MD?

Two reasons (for the most part):

1) You’re into alternative medicine, public health, or preventative care. Osteopathic medical training is becoming increasingly popular as U.S. lawmakers are concerned about the high cost of care and therefore, much are interested in preventative care and alternative methods of reducing such costs. In fact, research centers are popping up at some of the most prestigious schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and are receiving serious funding from the NIH to study and apply alternative medical treatments. So, any of that sounds compelling, you might want to explore the DO route, since your training will likely introduce you to a range of alternative therapies and theories MDs won’t hear much about during med school. That’s not to say you can’t get into preventative, alternative or manipulative care if you go the MD route. MD grads are free to explore fellowships and masters degrees in these fields after—or even before, in the case of MD/MPH joint degree programs—they graduate. It just means you aren’t as likely to be exposed to it during medical school.

2) Your application is so-so. Although the quality of education DOs receive is, for all intents and purposes, identical to what MDs get, DO schools are generally considered to be less competitive. If your MCAT score and/or GPA is out of range or at the low end of what most MD programs are looking for, it may still be competitive enough to get you into a few DO programs. That said, DO schools don’t accept just anyone. If you don’t have your ducks in a row, so to speak, you’re not likely to get in anywhere, MD or DO. But to be clear, on the whole, students entering osteopathic schools have somewhat lower undergraduate GPAs and MCAT scores.

Will your practice as a DO differ from that of an MD?

On the whole, not really. DOs use all of the same treatments, tools, and technologies that MDs do. In fact, DOs can choose from any of the specialties MDs can, from emergency medicine to cardiovascular surgery, geriatrics to psychiatry.

However, because it is well-known that DO schools are somewhat less competitive than MD schools, residencies may take into account the fact that you were a slightly less competitive applicant as a pre-med student. Even then, your grades and extracurricular work during medical school, plus the strength of your letters of recommendation will have a much stronger bearing on where you get your first job. After that, the jobs you get will have little (to nothing) to do with the letters behind your name, as long as you’re licensed to practice as physician in your state.

Who’s in school and residency longer—MD vs DO?

Whether you choose to pursue a DO or MD degree, you’ll spend four years in medical school. Your residency program will be very similar, ranging from 2-7 years, depending on your specialty.

Why are there more MD schools than DO schools in the U.S.?

Osteopathy, as a field of medicine, exists as an alternative to the traditional medical care model. Whereas allopathic (MD) medical training tends to focus on medication and surgical procedures, osteopathic (DO) study includes basic training in various naturopathic treatments and preventative measures. The first osteopathy school wasn’t founded until 1892; the first allopathic school was founded more than a century before. Since then DO schools have increased in number, and factors that distinguish them from M.D. schools have diminished substantially. DOs are licensed to practice medicine in any setting or speciality an MD can, so far as they have received the proper training and certification.

DO vs MD: The Verdict

All that said, since DOs and MDs have essentially the same privileges and opportunities, it seems like choosing DO over MD shouldn’t really be that big of a deal. If you love the city where a DO school you were accepted to is located, but you hate the city where the MD school you got into sits, it’s probably important to think about your priorities, and ask yourself if the (unfounded) prestige of the MD degree is worth a rough 4+ years.

If you’re visiting this page, you’re probably trying to figure out whether the whole med school thing is for you, or you already have and you’re trying to chart a path for yourself to get there. (Other than this website) one of the best resources I’ve come across is On Becoming a Doctor: Everything You Need to Know about Medical School, Residency, Specialization, and Practice, and you can get it for 10 bucks or so on Amazon. Anyway, it calmly and thoroughly walks you through each academic, physical, and emotional step you’ll take on your way to a successful career in medicine, and includes interviews with many different specialists to help you choose a medical path.


Bryce Johnson co-founded premedFAQ.com in 2011 and is the author of Must Reads for the Well-Rounded Pre-Med on Amazon. If you'd like to write for the site or contribute in another way, feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn or via email.