How to Decide Between an M.D. and a D.O.

Many premed students are unlikely to even understand the osteopathic philosophy.

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A question many medical school applicants ask themselves—or are asked by premedical advisers—is whether to apply to allopathic (M.D.) or osteopathic (D.O.) schools, or to both. The few premeds who are even aware of D.O. schools may be struggle when they try to tailor their applications to the two different types of curricula and career paths.

To help decide which degree program to pursue, applicants should ask themselves two questions:

1. What are the main differences between M.D.'s and D.O.'s?

Allopathic and osteopathic schools both teach the same basic science curricula necessary to becoming a fully qualified doctor, but they have two very different approaches and different admissions statistics.

[Read four tips for selecting a medical school.]

When most people think of medical school, they tend to think of allopathic schools. When we hear "Dr. John Doe," for example, we usually assume Doe to be an M.D. Allopathic schools approach their curricula differently; some have a traditional model of two years of basic sciences and another two years of clinical clerkships. Others require between one and one and a half years of science, as well as more time for electives.

Some schools, such as Harvard Medical School and the Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University, have a problem-based learning approach, while others take a more traditional approach.

While osteopathic students learn overlapping subjects and concepts as allopathic students, they also learn other techniques in line with the philosophy of osteopathy, which espouses therapeutic techniques that emphasize prevention.

The American Association of Osteopathic Colleges of Medicine describes osteopathy as a different approach to medical education, which brings "the additional benefits of osteopathic manipulative techniques to diagnose and treat patients." Osteopathic physicians, according to the AACOM, "work in partnership with patients to help them achieve a high level of wellness by focusing on health education, injury prevention, and disease prevention."

[Read about when to consider a joint M.D. degree.]

2. If I'm applying, what are some of the differences that I'll see?

If you feel that you may be in the lower tier of applicants (typically below a 3.4 GPA and 30 MCAT, based on the Swarthmore College premedical website), it may be to your advantage to consider D.O. schools, which typically have less stringent admissions requirements.

How you strategize or market yourself to either an M.D. or D.O. school depends on your background, personal statement, and other personal characteristics.

Gigi Simeone, health sciences adviser at Swarthmore College, says her school sends a "good number" of students to D.O. schools every year. "The ones that do [go to D.O. schools] are very happy with the holistic experience and the physical manipulation tools they learn as a means for diagnosis and treatment," she says.

And with new osteopathic schools opening at a much higher rate than allopathic schools, applicants might find more opportunities in D.O. programs.

Whichever choice you make, you will be able to apply to almost any residency program in any specialty and have all the privileges of what the public considers to be a traditional physician. Considering the differing philosophical backgrounds of the different schools might help direct you toward a school that is the best fit for you. 

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.