by Michelle Goetzl

At some point in scheduling medical appointments, you may have come across a doctor with the credentials DO after their name, rather than MD, and wondered what it meant.

There are two kinds of practicing physicians in the United States: allopathic physicians (MDs) and osteopathic physicians (DOs). Both are fully licensed, trained in diagnosing and treating illnesses and disorders, as well as providing preventive care. However, the root of how they look at patient care is often different.

Osteopathic medicine was founded in the late 1800s in Kirksville, Missouri, by Dr. Andrew Still, a medical doctor who recognized that the medical practices of his day often caused more harm than good—whether treating with toxic “medicines” or utilizing procedures, such as bloodletting. Dr. Still was concerned that doctors were only treating the effects of a disease rather than the cause.

Dr. Still studied the attributes of good health to better understand disease and came to the conclusion that the body had an innate ability to heal itself. He focused on developing a school of medical care that emphasized preventive care and the integration of the body’s systems and called this system of medicine osteopathy, now known as osteopathic medicine.

In the 21st century, the training of osteopathic medical physicians in the U.S. is equivalent to the training of doctors of medicine. Osteopathic medical physicians attend four years of medical school followed by an internship and a minimum two years of residency. They use all conventional methods of diagnosis and treatment.

In addition to the typical subjects that all medical students learn, osteopathic medical students also take approximately 200 hours of training in the art of osteopathic manipulative treatment.

As the American Osteopathic Association explains, students “receive extra training in the musculoskeletal system, which is the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones. DOs use this knowledge to perform osteopathic manipulative treatment, a series of hands-on techniques used to help diagnose illness or injury and facilitate the body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.”

The difference comes in how osteopaths tend to view the patients. Doctors of osteopathic medicine are trained to partner with patients to help them get healthy and stay well. Rather than treating specific symptoms, osteopathic physicians tend to practice a “whole person” or holistic approach to medicine. There is a strong focus on preventive care, and DOs often encourage their patients to develop healthy attitudes and lifestyles that help fight illness and prevent it. There is a stronger focus on alternative therapies, holistic medicine and disease prevention.

The osteopathic medical profession has a solid history in training primary care practitioners, from the pediatrician your children or grandchild sees, to the primary care doctor you visit or the hospitalist making rounds at the hospital. There are thousands of DOs who work in all medical specialties in hospitals and clinics across the country. It is highly possible that the doctor you saw in the emergency room or at a local clinic was actually a DO instead of a MD.

At the end of the day, all doctors follow the same guideline of wanting to help their patients and see them live long, full lives.