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What is a DO Degree? A Comprehensive Guide to Osteopathic Medicine

Discover the ins and outs of osteopathic medicine with our comprehensive guide to DO degrees.

Posted May 11, 2023

Osteopathic medicine is a distinct approach to healthcare that emphasizes the interrelationship of all systems in the body and the importance of treating the whole person, rather than just the symptoms of a disease. Osteopathic physicians, or DOs, are fully licensed medical doctors who use a unique blend of hands-on diagnostic and treatment techniques along with traditional medical interventions to promote health and recovery. In this comprehensive guide, we explore the history, philosophy, curriculum, and career opportunities of osteopathic medicine to help you understand what a DO degree entails and whether it could be the right path for you.

What is Osteopathic Medicine and How Does it Differ from Allopathic Medicine?

The founder of osteopathy, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, believed that the body has an innate ability to heal itself, and that physical manipulations, or osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), can facilitate that healing process. He also believed that the musculoskeletal system plays a significant role in health and illness, and that disruptions in its alignment and function can affect other physiological systems and lead to disease. These principles continue to guide osteopathic medicine today, although DOs also receive training in conventional medical practices and technology.

One of the main differences between osteopathic and allopathic (or MD) medicine is the emphasis on the patient-physician relationship and a more holistic approach to care. DOs often spend more time with their patients during appointments, discussing lifestyle factors, nutrition, and environmental influences on health. They also consider the mind-body connection and the impact of mental health on physical well-being. OMT is a hallmark of osteopathic medicine, but it is not always used in every patient encounter and is typically only one part of a larger treatment plan.

Another key aspect of osteopathic medicine is the focus on preventive care. DOs strive to identify and address potential health issues before they become more serious, through regular check-ups, screenings, and patient education. This proactive approach can help patients maintain optimal health and avoid the need for more invasive or costly interventions down the line.

Finally, DOs are trained to view the body as a whole, interconnected system, rather than a collection of separate parts or symptoms. This means that they may be more likely to consider how seemingly unrelated issues could be related, and to seek out underlying causes rather than simply treating surface-level symptoms. This approach can lead to more effective and personalized care for patients, and may help to uncover previously undiagnosed conditions or concerns.

The History of Osteopathic Medicine: From the 19th Century to Today

Dr. Still founded the first osteopathic medical school in Kirksville, Missouri, in 1892, and since then, the philosophy and practice of osteopathy have spread throughout the United States and internationally. The American Osteopathic Association (AOA), founded in 1897, is the governing body for the profession and accredits colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs) and residency programs.

Over the years, osteopathic medicine has evolved to include more traditional medical practices and technology, and DOs now practice in all specialties and subspecialties, including surgery, psychiatry, and sports medicine. There are currently 38 COMs in the United States, which offer four-year programs that are similar to allopathic medical schools but also include additional training in OMT and osteopathic principles.

Understanding the Philosophy of Osteopathic Medicine: Holistic Approach to Healthcare

At the heart of osteopathic medicine is the belief in treating the whole person, not just their symptoms. This means taking a comprehensive approach to care that considers physical, emotional, and spiritual factors that may impact a patient's well-being. DOs often spend more time with their patients than MDs, taking a detailed medical history and discussing lifestyle factors, family history, and environmental influences on health. This information can help guide a personalized treatment plan that may include OMT, medication, surgery, or other therapies.

The body is seen as a unit in osteopathic medicine, and DOs believe that all structures and systems are interconnected. By addressing imbalances or dysfunction in one area, a DO can improve the function of the body as a whole. The goal of osteopathic treatment is to facilitate the body's innate healing process and promote optimal health and well-being.

The Core Principles of Osteopathy: A Patient-Centered Model

There are four core principles that guide the practice of osteopathic medicine: 1) the body is a unit; 2) the body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance; 3) structure and function are interrelated; and 4) the physician's role is to facilitate health, not just treat disease. These principles emphasize a patient-centered model of care that focuses on collaboration and shared decision-making between the physician and patient.

DOs use a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic tools to help their patients achieve optimal health, including traditional medical interventions, OMT, manipulation and massage, exercise and nutrition counseling, and referrals to other healthcare providers as needed. The idea is to use the most appropriate treatment for each individual patient, considering their unique needs and circumstances.

How to Become an Osteopathic Physician: Admission Requirements and Application Process

Becoming a DO requires completing a four-year program at a COM and passing a series of licensing exams. The admissions process for COMs is similar to that of allopathic medical schools, with requirements that include a bachelor's degree, minimum GPA, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, and, in some cases, an interview. Some COMs also require prerequisite coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and other sciences.

Once admitted, DO students must complete a comprehensive curriculum that includes basic and clinical sciences, clinical rotations, and training in osteopathic principles and OMT. The last two years of the curriculum are focused primarily on clinical training, working with patients under the supervision of licensed DOs.

Curriculum Overview: What You Can Expect in a DO Program

The curriculum for a DO program is similar to that of an MD program, but also includes additional training in osteopathic principles and OMT. The first two years of the curriculum typically cover basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and pathology, as well as courses in medical ethics and communication skills. Students also receive training in clinical skills such as history-taking, physical examination, and patient communication.

The second two years of the curriculum are focused primarily on clinical training, with students rotating through different specialties and subspecialties to gain experience in various areas of medicine. In addition to traditional medical interventions, students also learn to use OMT and other hands-on diagnostic and treatment techniques.

Clinical Training in Osteopathy: Hands-On Experience in Diagnosis and Treatment

DOs receive extensive clinical training during their education and typically complete internships and residencies in their chosen specialties. During these training periods, they work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians, gaining hands-on experience in diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation.

One of the unique aspects of osteopathic medicine is the use of OMT in clinical practice. DOs use their hands to manipulate bones, muscles, and other tissues to diagnose and treat a variety of conditions, including musculoskeletal pain, respiratory conditions, and digestive problems. OMT can also be used to improve circulation, reduce stress, and enhance overall well-being.

The Role of Osteopathic Physicians in Healthcare: Primary Care Providers and Specialists

DOs practice in all areas of medicine, from primary care to surgery and beyond. Many DOs choose to practice in primary care specialties such as family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics, where they can provide comprehensive and patient-centered care to individuals and families over their lifetimes. DOs also practice in specialties such as emergency medicine, cardiology, dermatology, and psychiatry, among others.

Because of their training in osteopathic principles, DOs are uniquely positioned to provide a holistic, whole-person perspective on healthcare, and to collaborate with other healthcare providers to provide the best possible outcomes for their patients.

What Conditions Can be Treated with Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment?

OMT can be used to diagnose and treat a variety of conditions, including musculoskeletal pain, headaches, asthma, sinus problems, menstrual pain, and digestive problems, among others. During an OMT session, the DO uses his or her hands to apply pressure, stretch, or mobilize tissues to promote healing and restore function. OMT can be used alone or in conjunction with other medical interventions, depending on the needs of the patient.

Career Opportunities for DO Graduates: Residency Training and Beyond

After completing their DO programs, graduates typically complete a residency in their chosen specialty or subspecialty. Residencies are usually three to seven years long, depending on the specialty, and provide extensive hands-on training in patient care. Graduates can then pursue further training in fellowships or enter practice in their chosen specialties or subspecialties.

DOs have a wide range of career opportunities available to them, in both traditional medical settings and alternative healthcare practices. They can work in private practices, academic medical centers, hospitals, and clinics, and can also pursue opportunities in administration, research, public health, and healthcare policy.

Comparing DO and MD Degrees: Similarities and Differences

MD and DO degrees are similar in many ways, including the rigorous curriculum and training required to become licensed physicians. However, there are some differences in the approach to care and the use of OMT as a diagnostic and treatment tool. MDs may have more exposure to certain specialties, and DOs may have more training in OMT. Ultimately, both MDs and DOs are fully licensed, competent, and capable physicians who work to provide the best possible care for their patients.

Common Misconceptions about Osteopathy Debunked

There are several misconceptions about osteopathy and DOs that persist, despite the fact that the profession has been around for more than a century. Some people believe that DOs are not as well-trained as MDs, or that they only practice alternative medicine. Others believe that OMT is a pseudoscience or that DOs cannot prescribe medication or perform surgery. None of these beliefs are true. DOs are fully trained physicians who use evidence-based practices to diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions, and OMT is a legitimate diagnostic and treatment option for many patients.

The Future of Osteopathic Medicine in the United States

Osteopathic medicine has been growing in popularity in the United States, with more students choosing to pursue DO degrees every year. The AOA and COMs are working to promote the value of osteopathy and to increase the visibility of DOs in the healthcare industry. As healthcare becomes more patient-centered and focused on holistic care, the principles of osteopathy and the skills of DOs may become even more relevant and necessary.

Choosing a DO Program: Factors to Consider When Applying to Schools

Choosing a DO program can be a daunting task, but there are several factors you can consider to help make the process easier. Some things to think about include the location and size of the school, the quality of the faculty and facilities, the reputation of the program and institution, the cost and availability of financial aid, and the opportunities for research, extracurricular activities, and clinical experience.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue a DO degree should be based on your personal goals, interests, and values. If you are interested in a holistic approach to medicine, enjoy working with patients, and value a collaborative, patient-centered model of care, osteopathic medicine may be the right path for you.

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