Is a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) Right For Me?


By Shelley Webb

Having worked in the health care industry for almost 30 years, I can tell you that there is a definite hierarchy in the way that medical titles are perceived within the health care community.  For instance, RNs are perceived better than LPNs (or LVNs); 4 year RN grads are perceived better than 2 year RN grads; and physician's assistants are still perceived better than nurse practitioners although that is beginning to change now that nurse practitioners are required to complete doctoral programs.  A lot of this perception is, of course, based on the amount of education each title involves, but each position has its own value and we must stop lumping all these positions into one category: NURSE.

There is also a hierarchy among physicians, although they will often deny this.  Specialists are perceived better than family practice physicians with neurosurgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons residing at the top of the list.

Doctors of Osteopathy (D.O.s) are seen at the bottom of the doctor hierarchy and were initially shunned by the medical doctors (MDs) as quacks and phonies as referenced by the article "Dubious Aspects of Osteopathy" by Stephen Barrett, M.D.  They have become increasingly more accepted as society moves towards preventive medicine and a more holistic approach to health care.

So what exactly is a Doctor of Osteopathy and what are the differences between a D.O. and an M.D.?

The practice of osteopathic medicine was founded in 1874 by a medical doctor (M.D.) named Dr. Andrew Taylor Still who was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of 19th century medicine.  He believed that many of the medications that were being prescribed were useless and that physicians should concentrate on wellness rather than illness.  He pioneered the concept of wellness and his practice also included the use of chiropractic principles, manipulation and "laying on of the hands" to promote diagnosis and healing.

Both types of physicians are licensed to practice medicine, write prescriptions and perform surgery.  Both require four years of undergraduate study in either pre-medicine or a related science.  Both require four additional years of medical training before being allowed to take their medical exams (which are comparably difficult but yet not quite the same).  Both a medical doctor and a doctor of osteopathy may elect to choose a specialty which would require between two and six years of additional training.

The difference between the two practices is really a differences in philosophy.  While medical doctors (which are based on allopathic medicine ) evaluate the disease within their patient in terms of how it affects only certain parts of the body, the osteopathic doctor evaluates the disease within the body as a complex related network.

The doctor of osteopathy also receives training in the muscular and skeletal systems and is more likely to use alternative medical approaches such as manipulation, meditation, laying on of the hands, and he may recommend consults with naturopaths and/or accupuncturists.

Doctors of Osteopathy (D.O.s) are less likely to specialize than medical doctors (M.D.s) because their emphasis is on preventative care and of taking time with patients in order to assess their total health needs.  In saying this, I must also say that medical doctors are leaning towards preventative medicine much more now, as well.

When choosing a physician for yourself or your loved one, you want to be aware that both types of practitioners are equally capable and qualified, so choose one that resonates with you.  For more information on finding a good physician, see Finding a Good Doctor.

Shelley Webb has been a registered nurse for almost 30 years, with experience in the fields of neonatal intensive care, dialysis, case management and eldercare. Having experienced the helplessness, frustration, overwhelm and even loneliness that caregiving for an aging parent brings, Shelley is well aware of the emotional and educational support that caregivers need and so she began The Intentional Caregiver web site.

With its weekly newsletter, daily news updates and monthly audio interviews of experts in eldercare and supporting services, Shelley strives to encourage and educate caregivers so that they can be empowered to provide the best possible care for themselves while caring for their aging loved one(s).

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  3. Hi Shelley, Thanks for a very interesting and informative article! When we moved a few years back, we were "assigned" a D.O. I was a bit concerned since I didn't know exactly what that meant but after researching, felt comfortable giving it a try. He turned out to be great, very patient, no rush when we visited. And we received excellent care. It was quite interesting to read this now and go, "Aha." And also to agree with you, that we were quite happy and blessed by his medical help and expertise. Thanks again.
  4. Interesting article! Doing research and asking lots of questions is important before making such decisions...

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