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MD vs. DO: What’s the Difference?
So, you want to become a licensed physician. That’s great! To do so, you’ll either need a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) or an MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree. In order to obtain either, you’ll need to complete four years of medical school, a residency, and potentially even a fellowship. For that reason, it’s incredibly important that you are dedicating your time to the correct med school path for you.
What’s the difference between an MD and DO degree, though? Well, keep on reading to find out!
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What is an MD?
Great question! An MD (Doctor of Medicine) is one of the few types of medical school degrees, and is arguably the most well-known. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s the “best” option for you – it simply means that it’s had the most exposure to the general public.
As for what makes it unique, studying for an MD degree includes learning a lot about allopathic medicine. Although someone outside the field of medicine may be unfamiliar with the term itself, most anyone is probably familiar with what it refers to: a science-based practice with the goal of diagnosing and treating medical conditions.
We’ll get more into the specifics of MD’s later. For now, let’s learn (the basics of) what a DO is!
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What is a DO?
While MD’s focus on allopathic medicine, DO’s focus on osteopathic medicine. Osteopathic medicine is often viewed as more holistic than its allopathic counterpart, encouraging a view of the patient as a whole and not just individual parts.
On the more technical side, osteopathic medicine focuses heavily on the prevention of medical conditions in the first place. Students studying for DO’s also learn osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a hands-on method that involves movement of patients’ muscles and joints in order to promote healing.
And that’s it (for the basic overviews of MD and DO degrees)! Let’s get into some of their similarities and differences.
MD vs. DO programs: basic similarities and differences
Before we get into the questions you really want answered, we’ll first cover the programs’ basic similarities and differences. By “basic” we refer to anything you could find with a quick Google search, or anything generally answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” So, let’s get into them!
- Require that students have already obtained a bachelor’s degree
- Both generally require a decent GPA and MCAT score for acceptance
- If your GPA is on the lower side, however, be sure to check out “How to get into medical school with a low GPA”
- Typically last four years
- Include science coursework and clinical rotations
- Students can practice a variety of medical specialties/subfields
- Students in either program can write the same prescriptions
- Generally require a residency program after graduation
- Allow access to the same pool of residency programs
- Will allow you to obtain licensing (to practice medicine) in any state (so long as you apply for licensing and fulfill the necessary state requirements)
- DO programs typically require at least ~200 hours dedicated to learning OMT (osteopathic manipulative treatment)
- MD programs:
- Use science-based practice to diagnose and treat patients
- Are accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
- DO programs:
- Use a more holistic approach to medicine and health
- Are accredited by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA)
And that’s the gist of it! To hear our thoughts on perhaps more pressing questions (e.g. “Is getting a DO easier than an MD?”), keep on reading!
MD vs. DO: Admission questions
It’s what you’ve been waiting for – we’ll finally answer your pressing questions! To make things easier to digest, we’ll be splitting these questions into categories based on what aspect of med school they fall into. For example, is the question related to admissions, residency, career, etc.?
As being admitted is the first step towards getting an MD or DO, we’ll start with admissions questions first. Let’s get into it!
Also see: How to attend med school for free guide
Is getting an MD or a DO easier?
Good question! In general, medical schools tend to be difficult to gain acceptance into due to high competition and a relatively small number of programs. As for which is “harder” to get into, it depends on what angle you’re looking at.
Technically, DO programs are “harder” to get into seeing as they have a lower acceptance rate. In reality, though, this is only true as there are fewer DO (38) than MD (155) programs available. Due to this, you are statistically more likely to gain acceptance into a MD than DO program.
If we’re looking at things more realistically, however, the opposite is true. When viewing the average stats of students admitted into both programs, you’ll notice that MD programs typically require slightly higher GPAs and MCAT scores than their DO counterparts. Students who were accepted and enrolled in MD programs for the 2021-2022 academic year had an average MCAT score of 511.9 and an average GPA of 3.74. Averages for students matriculating into DO programs for the 2020-2021 school year were slightly lower, with an average MCAT score of 504.3 and a GPA of 3.54. This suggests that students generally need more competitive stats to gain acceptance into MD programs.
If you’re interested in either type of program and are now worried about your chances of getting in, there’s no need to worry! There are many programs available, and stats are certainly not the only thing considered. Your extracurriculars, previous work/internship experiences, and personal statement are also very important.
With that said, how should you write the personal statements for both types of programs? Let’s see.
Related: Pre med requirements
How should I write my personal statement differently for the MD (AMCAS) versus the DO application (AACOMAS)?
Before we get into the differences, let’s briefly go over the similarities. Personal statements for both MD and DO programs should include why you want to pursue medicine, your journey towards pursuing a medical degree, and why you would make a great physician. As for the length, personal statements for either application have a 5,300 character limit (roughly 1.5 single-spaced pages if in 12 font).
So, what do these one-and-a-half page statements normally look like? Well, due to allopathic medicine being the most common of the medical school degrees, this approach tends to be more strongly reflected in students’ applications. This is true of their coursework, extracurricular activities, general insights, and even personal statements. For this reason, students applying to both MD and DO programs will typically write their AMCAS (MD) personal statement first, then alter it as necessary for their AACOMAS (DO) statement.
With that said, there is a “worse” way to convert your AMCAS essay into your AACOMAS, and a “better” way to do it. The worse way is simply adding terms like “holistic” or phrases such as “whole person” throughout your essay. Yes, this will make your essay slightly more osteopathic-specific. However, you aren’t writing for SEO – so adding keywords won’t help much. What we mean is: there won’t be any benefit in simply stuffing random keywords throughout your essay. The selection committees will see straight through it!
Rather, the better way to change your AMCAS essay into an AACOMAS one is to detail ways that you have applied the osteopathic method to your clinical and research experiences. When done this way, using relevant words like “holistic” throughout your essay won’t seem random – but will help persuade the readers of your dedication and knowledge of the field.
Is it okay to shadow MD physicians if I want to get into a DO program?
Great question. While it is technically “okay” to shadow an MD physician if you’re applying to DO programs, we would definitely recommend you shadow a DO physician as well. Not only will shadowing a DO physician give you a better understanding of what osteopathic medicine entails, but it will also make selection committees feel as if you’re fully dedicated to the field.
If you’re finding it difficult to find a DO physician to shadow, we recommend checking out this directory of all practicing DO physicians in the U.S. We hope you find a great one!
Do I need a letter of recommendation from an osteopathic physician in order to get into a DO program?
This answer will be somewhat similar to that of question #3 (“Is it okay to shadow MD physicians if I want to get into a DO program?”) above. While you can certainly still get into DO programs with a recommendation letter from an allopathic physician, getting one from an osteopathic physician will certainly look better on your application.
This is because DO programs want to know that you’re actually interested in DO programs, and that you’re not just applying to them as a “backup” of sorts. Getting a letter of recommendation from a DO physician is a great way to prove your dedication to osteopathic medicine, as it shows that you have taken the time to either discuss or work with an experienced professional in the field.
Also see: How to ask for letters of recommendation
MD vs. DO: Residency questions
After you get into medical school and eventually graduate, your typical next step is a residency program! Here are some commonly asked, pressing questions (and answers) about post-med-school residency:
Are there differences in MD vs. DO residency opportunities?
Great question. While it used to be true that MD students could only “match” to ACGME (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education)-accredited residencies and DO students could only match to ACGME or AOA-accredited residencies, these councils merged in July 2020! Thus, MD and DO students may now match with any accredited residency site.
Along with the merge came some changes to pre-residency standardized testing. In the past, some ACGME-accredited residencies would require that students pass the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination) to be considered. However, the USMLE and COMLEX (Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States) are now considered “equivalents.” Thus, DO students don’t necessarily need to pass the USMLE in order to match with residencies.
With that said, many students wishing to become osteopathic physicians will still take both exams (the USMLE and COMLEX) in order to expand their possible residency options.
If you’re an aspiring osteopathic physician and not sure whether you should take only one exam or both, we would recommend checking out “USMLE or COMLEX: what exam should a DO take?”
Don’t miss: How to get into med school with a low GPA
USMLE + COMLEX Test Prep Resources
Once you decide what exam(s) to take, below are some test prep resources we’ve compiled just for you.
USMLE test prep resources:
- USMLE: content outline, sample questions, question formats, and a practice session
- Free USMLE events and resources
- USMLE self-assessments
COMLEX test prep resources:
Last, but certainly not least, here’s an overview of the most commonly used prep textbooks and resources (for both exams) to see how your peers are preparing.
What is the difference between MD and DO residency match rates?
Great question! The 2021 NRMP Residency Match marked the second year in which MD and DO recipients partook in the same residency matching process. Both PGY-1 (students in their first year out of medical school) MD and DO seniors saw quite high match rates, at 92.8% and 89.1%, respectively.
Although these rates are quite similar, the results look a little different once you start looking into individual specialties. While both MD and DO seniors matched into primary care specialties at high rates, DO seniors struggled to keep up with the match rates of their MD counterparts when it came to highly competitive specialties.
For example, let’s take a look at students who matched into their preferred specialties. When it came to neurological surgery, 73.6% of MD seniors matched while only 42.9% of DO seniors could say the same. This difference was even more pronounced for vascular surgery, of which 69.1% and a far lower 23.1% of MD and DO seniors matched, respectively.
While this may seem disheartening to prospective DO students, we think it is certainly important to mention. Unfortunately, the higher prestige associated with MD degrees makes it slightly harder for DO students to match in competitive specialties. However, this certainly does not make it impossible. DO students who are near or at the top of their class and who excel on the USMLE will certainly be competitive for their desired residency programs.
MD vs. DO: Career and reputation questions
By now, you’ve ideally completed medical school, your residency (and possibly even a fellowship), and are ready to start practicing! To help you along the way, here are some of the most commonly asked career and reputation/prestige questions (and answers).
Are there differences in salaries for those with an MD vs. DO?
Not necessarily. When comparing MD and DO physicians within the same specialty, location, and position (and with the same amount of experience) – the salaries will likely look very similar. However, MD physicians do tend to make more. This is for a few reasons, including:
- MD physicians are more likely to specialize
- Specialists typically earn higher salaries than generalists
- MD physicians (and specialists) tend to practice in urban areas
- Working in cities/urban areas typically comes with a higher salary – but it also tends to (not always) come with a higher cost of living
Can MD and DO’s trained in the U.S. practice internationally?
For MD recipients: yes! So long as you fulfill your desired country’s licensing requirements, your MD degree grants you the rights to practice in any country you wish.
For DO recipients: also yes, but not in every country. Individuals holding an osteopathic degree currently have full practice rights in around 50 countries and partial practice rights in some others. However, the AOA is actively working to increase the acceptance of DO degrees in more and more nations. Hopefully, DO recipients will be able to work worldwide one day.
On the bright side, recipients of either degree may practice in any U.S. state they like. If you’re a prospective physician planning on practicing in the U.S., we would recommend checking out these state specific requirements for initial medical licensure!
Should I apply to an MD or DO program?
Last, but certainly not least, let’s consider which degree path (MD or DO) will better suit you. The two main criteria we’ll be looking at include your goals and stats. Let’s get into it!
When deciding whether to pursue an MD or DO degree, you must first consider your career goals and interests.
Let’s start with interests, and look at a hypothetical example. Let’s say that you’re an undergraduate student who’s 100% (or very) sure that they want to specialize in a subfield of medicine. If so, an MD may be the best choice for you. This is because MD recipients tend to have an easier time being accepted into highly competitive, specialized residency programs.
On the other hand, let’s say that you’re quite sure that you want to become a primary care physician one day. If so, matching to a very competitive, specialized residency program won’t matter much. Instead, you should focus your attention on whether you prefer practicing allopathic or osteopathic medicine.
This is not to say that your preference for allopathic or osteopathic should have no impact on you if you’re looking to specialize. Rather, you should simply put more weight on your preference for one or the other if you want to go into primary care. This is because being able to specialize is dependent upon matching into a specialized residency program.
We’re almost done! First, let’s go over stats. When it comes to stats, we would recommend seeing how your MCAT score and GPA compare with those of the averages for matriculants into DO and MD programs.
Generally, MD programs require slightly higher MCAT scores and GPAs than their DO counterparts. This means that while some students may not be deemed “competitive” for MD programs, they could still have a shot of obtaining acceptance into DO programs. While we would certainly still encourage students to apply to both types of programs if they’re interested, bear in mind that DO’s may be your only option if below a certain MCAT and GPA score threshold (this will differ by institution).
Even if this turns out to be the case for you, don’t worry! DO programs are by no means “worse” than their MD counterparts, and certainly will still give you the ability to practice medicine throughout the U.S. (and in approximately 50 other countries). Further, many students apply to both MD and DO programs because of an interest in both allopathic and osteopathic medicine.
On that note, here are a few helpful MCAT test prep resources if you do want to get your score up:
- Prepare for the MCAT exam
- Khan Academy: MCAT test prep
- Kaplan MCAT practice tests
- Princeton Review (free) biology courses and MCAT practice test
And with that, we’re done! Whether you choose to pursue an MD or DO degree, we wish you the best of luck. Just bear in mind that no degree type is inherently “better” than the other – your choice should simply depend on what you want out of your degree (and life).
With that said, we’ll send you off! Stay healthy, wealthy, and wise.