Study Tips

MD vs. DO: What Are the Key Differences?

Osmosis Team
Published on Jun 10, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

The journey to becoming a doctor certainly isn’t an easy one, and part of the challenge is navigating different paths. As a prospective doctor, you likely want to know whether you should pursue a DO vs. MD degree. By reading this, you’re starting off on the right foot: this guide will answer all your questions about each profession, their respective program requirements, board exams, career prospects, and salary expectations. 

What is an MD? 

An MD, short for Doctor of Medicine or Medical Doctor, is a degree awarded to those who graduate from an accredited medical school. Medical schools teach allopathic medicine, which is evidence-based, modern medicine that employs the use of drugs and surgery to treat disease. MD graduates undergo specialized clinical training for certification in the form of a residency program. Physicians with an MD can be licensed to practice in all states.

What is a DO? 

A DO, short for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, is a degree awarded to those who graduate from an accredited osteopathic medical school. A DO degree can only be obtained domestically. Curricula at osteopathic schools are nearly identical to those of an MD program, but DO candidates complete an additional 300-500 hours of training in osteopathic manipulation medicine (OMM). OMM is a non-invasive, hands-on therapy used in the evaluation and treatment of musculoskeletal disease. 

DO graduates also complete a residency program, specialized clinical training, for certification. Physicians with a DO can be licensed to practice in all states.

What are the program requirements for MD vs DO? 

Admission to medical school is highly competitive, regardless of whether you’re applying to an MD program or a DO program. All applicants must obtain a bachelor’s degree, complete a variety of pre-medical science course requirements (specific requirements are dependent on the program, but often include coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and math), and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). 

Additionally, applicants are expected to submit letters of recommendation, participate in community service and volunteer opportunities, and obtain clinical experience. 

One key difference between MD and DO matriculants are their average MCAT scores and GPAs. The average MD matriculant had an MCAT score of 511.5 and a GPA of 3.73, whereas the average DO matriculant had an MCAT score of 503.83 and a GPA of 3.54. In other words, based on test scores and grades, it’s slightly more difficult to get into an MD program.

Do MDs and DOs take the same medical licensure exams?

In order to become licensed, physicians with an MD degree are required to take all three steps of the USMLE®*. USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 are taken during medical school, and Step 3 is taken during residency, typically following internship year (first year of residency). 

The COMLEX-USA®** is required for osteopathic physicians, but DO candidates may also take the USMLE for licensure. Similar to the USMLE, COMLEX-USA also consists of three parts, the first two of which are taken during medical school. Most DO students opt to take both the USMLE and COMLEX-USA in order to be more competitive for residency programs, as many residencies require the USMLE.

Learn more about MD vs. DO in this Raise the Line interview with Robert Cain, DO, President & CEO of AACOM.

Do MD and DO students have the same career prospects? 

Both MD and DO physicians can be licensed to practice in all 50 states. However, whether you’re an MD or DO graduate, your scope of practice is dependent on your board certification, obtained upon the completion of a residency program. Whereas DO candidates used to have their own pool of residency programs to apply to, this is no longer true as of June 2020: MD and DO students will be permitted to train at any residency site. This could come at the expense of less competitive DO applicants. 

As of 2019, MD students have a 94% residency match rate, while DO students only have an 84.6% match rate. Additionally, most practicing DO physicians are primary care doctors, which is something to keep in mind if you intend to specialize. Both MD and DO graduates can expect to benefit from a rapidly expanding job market. Note that MD physicians have full practice rights globally (subject to licensing requirements), while DO degrees are recognized by roughly 50 countries.

Can MD and DO graduates expect similar salaries?

Though primary care physicians are in great demand, they tend to take home lower salaries than their specialist counterparts; as mentioned, most DO physicians are primary care doctors. However, when controlling for factors like specialty, years of experience, and location, MD and DO physicians make comparable salaries. In other words, the main differentiator is the residency program you match into and the board certification it enables you to get. Both MD and DO physicians can expect to make higher salaries as specialists than as primary care physicians.

What are the differences in patient care between MD and DO? 

Osteopathic medical schools emphasize a holistic, “whole-person approach” to patient care, enhanced by additional training in OMM. The American Osteopathic Association highlights its focus on prevention. In comparison, the allopathic approach to healthcare centers on the usage of drugs and surgery to treat disease. While a holistic approach to medicine takes into account a patient’s lifestyle and environment, the allopathic approach focuses more on addressing symptoms using medical interventions. 

As previously mentioned, however, DO and MD curricula are nearly identical save for OMM; practicing physicians can treat their patients as they see fit. MD physicians may choose to take a more holistic approach to patient care, while DO physicians can apply their allopathic training.

MD vs. DO: Which should I pick? 

Wow! There’s certainly a lot to keep in mind when deciding whether to become an MD vs. DO physician. The reality is, the right choice is specific to your personal circumstances. 

Do you find OMM fascinating and want to incorporate it into your practice? Is your MCAT score exceptionally high? Are you looking to specialize or practice in a particular location? 

Only you can answer those questions. The good news is, you’ve taken an excellent first step to making the right choice: reading this guide and getting educated about your options. The road ahead will be challenging, but with informed decision-making, it’ll be exceptionally rewarding as well.

* The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE®) is a joint program of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME®). Osmosis is not affiliated with NBME nor FSMB.

** COMLEX-USA® is a registered trademark of the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners, Inc. (NBOME). Osmosis is not affiliated with NBOME.

Try Osmosis today! Access your free trial and find out why millions of clinicians and caregivers love learning with us.