What's the Difference Between Allopathic and Osteopathic Medicine?

Female doctor and male surgeon using digital tablet in clinic
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There are two basic types of medical training: allopathic and osteopathic. The traditional medical degree, the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), requires training in allopathic medicine while steopathic medical schools award the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Students hoping to achieve either degree attend medical schools and receive substantial training (4 years, not including residency), and other than the osteopathic student's ability to administer osteopathic medicine, there is no real marked difference between the two programs.

Training

The curricula of both schools are similar. State licensing agencies and most hospitals and residency programs recognize the degrees as equivalent. In other words, osteopathic doctors are legally and professionally equivalent to allopathic doctors. The important difference between the two types of schools of training is that osteopathic medical schools take a holistic perspective on practice of medicine based on a belief in treating the "whole patient" (mind-body-spirit) and the primacy of the musculoskeletal system in human health and the utility of osteopathic manipulative treatment. D.O. recipients emphasize prevention, a historical distinction which is less relevant as all of medicine increasingly emphasizes prevention.

Biomedical and clinical sciences take the forefront of both degree's training programs, requiring students of both fields to complete relatively the same course load (anatomy, microbiology, pathology, etc), but the osteopathic student additionally takes courses focused on hands-on manual medicine, including an additional 300-500 hours of study in manipulating the musculoskeletal system, a practice referred to as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM).

Admissions and Enrollment

There are fewer D.O. programs than M.D. programs in the United States with about 20% of medical students entering D.O. programs each year. As compared with traditional medical school, osteopathic medical schools have a reputation for looking at the applicant, not just his or her statistics, and therefore likely to admit nontraditional applicants who are older, non-science majors or seeking a second career.

The average GPA and MCAT scores for incoming students are slightly lower in osteopathic programs, but the difference is rapidly falling. The average age of entering osteopathic students is about 26 years (versus allopathic medical school's 24). Both require an undergraduate degree and basic science coursework before applying.

Practicing osteopathic physicians make up seven percent of the United States' medical physicians with over 96,000 practicing currently in the country. With enrollment in D.O. programs increasing steadily since 2007, though, it is expected that these numbers will climb in the coming years and more private practices will open that focus on this field of medicine. 

The Real Difference

The main disadvantage of choosing osteopathic medicine is that that you may find yourself educating patients and colleagues about your degree and credentials (i.e., that a D.O. is the equivalent of an M.D.). Otherwise, both receive the same level of legal benefits and are fully accredited to practice in the United States.

Essentially, if you are hoping to choose between the two fields of study, you really just need to evaluate whether or not you believe in a more holistic, hands-on approach to medicine or the more traditional route of becoming a Doctor of Medicine.

Either way, though, you'll be a physician after completing your medical school degree and residency programs.