The non-difference between MDs and DOs

“What’s a DO?” is something virtually every osteopathic medical student and physician have been asked at some point in their training. There is this public misconception that professionals who carry MD after their names are the only qualified people to medically treat their ailments. Any other degree is categorized as “alternative medicine” in their mental schema. Truth be told, DOs, or doctors of osteopathic medicine are just as qualified as their allopathic MD counterparts (or more appropriately, peers) to successfully treat patients. We take the same classes, undergo the same residency training, and must pass multiple board examinations to become certified and able to practice. Despite existing for hundreds of years, there is still a palpable bias against osteopathic physicians that exists in both the general public and amongst our own medical profession.

An oversimplified history of osteopathic medicine begins with its founding in the late 19th century by Andrew Taylor Still, rooted from his profound rejection of conventional medicine. He believed medicine was best practiced by focusing on prevention and etiology of disease rather than simply treating with medications which at the time included arsenic among many other controversial therapies. Osteopathic medicine was built on a principle that most, if not all disease processes stemmed from a dysfunctional musculoskeletal system. Gradually over time, the osteopathic camp blended its principles to fit with modern medicine backed by scientific study and research.

Today, osteopathic medical training is identical to allopathic training with the exception of having to take an additional class on how to treat and diagnose the musculoskeletal system called osteopathic manipulative treatment or OMT. This class isn’t designed to replace any aspect of the medical education, rather just serve as an additional weapon in their toolkit to fight disease.

Objectively, the equivalency of qualifications of a DO compared to an MD shouldn’t even be up for debate, yet in my experience, many patients would much rather be treated by an MD. Additionally, it’s much more difficult (admittedly not impossible) for osteopathic medical students to match into prestigious residency programs compared to allopathic students. Why do these barriers exist in 2018, especially when the physician shortage is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years? I believe the main culprits are both MDs and DOs who perpetuate this notion that the degrees aren’t equivalent.

Despite osteopathic physicians gaining a significant amount of respect in modern medicine, the idea that DOs are inferior is still quite permissive today despite no evidence of substandard practice. Arguably worse, some DOs hold steadfast to the idea that they are better than MDs because they carry the additional knowledge of OMT into their practice. Generalizations like this are alarmingly dangerous to patients because the two letters after a physician’s name don’t automatically designate them as any better or any worse.

Patients will inevitably encounter both phenomenal and terrible physicians who bear both degrees. What makes a good doctor is their dedication to cure and provide patients with a better quality of life. It’s the time they take to really listen to and hear a patient’s complaints and work with them to formulate a treatment plan both can leave the office happy with. It’s never being complacent and always being hungry to learn more about medicine for the betterment of their patients. A degree doesn’t magically instill these characteristics in a physician; rather, it’s the physician who dictates how they represent their degree to patients.

Brandon Jacobi is a medical student.

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