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What's an Osteopath?

It's easy to recognize physicians just by reading their names. After all, they have the letters MD after their names, right? But what if you see the letters DO? You might be surprised to learn that this is an abbreviation for another type of physician.

Perhaps you aren't sure whether your child currently sees a DO (a doctor of osteopathic medicine; an osteopathic physician) or an MD (a doctor of medicine). Your main concern is that your child receives excellent medical care, and both MDs and DOs are good choices when it comes to your child's health.

What's a DO?

According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), osteopathic medicine is a complete system of health care with a philosophy that combines the needs of the patient with the current practice of medicine. Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) practice a whole-person approach, which means they consider both the physical and mental needs of their patients.

This "holistic" approach to health care was developed by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, who feared that 19th-century medicine was doing more harm than good. Disgusted at the ineffectiveness of fellow practitioners during the Civil War, he decided to focus on the body's ability to heal itself and began to stress preventive medicine. He also identified the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health, stressing that muscles, nerves, bones, and organs are all interrelated. In 1892, Dr. Still founded the American School of Osteopathy in Kirksville, Missouri.

Manipulative Medicine

A key part of osteopathic medicine is a technique called OMT, or osteopathic manipulative treatment. OMT allows physicians to use their hands as a primary tool to diagnose and treat illness and injury. This form of manual medicine lets DOs examine the back and other parts of the body, such as joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, for pain and restriction during motion that could signal an injury or impaired function.

Although they sometimes focus on the back, these physicians are not chiropractors. OMT is a treatment very specific to how and where humans injure themselves and how that injury can manifest itself as symptoms.

DOs and MDs

Both DOs and MDs are physicians. Both are licensed by state and specialty boards to perform surgery and write prescriptions. Applicants to both DO and MD colleges usually have a 4-year undergraduate degree with an emphasis on science courses, and both complete 4 years of basic medical education.

In fact, both DOs and MDs:

  • can choose to practice in a specialty area of medicine, such as surgery or obstetrics
  • complete a residency program, which usually takes 2 to 6 years of additional training
  • must pass comparable state licensing examinations
  • are equal in the eyes of the law
  • practice in fully accredited hospitals and medical centers
  • can order medical tests and procedures
  • must maintain a prescribed level of continuing education units (CEUs) to remain certified

Currently, more than 41,000 osteopathic physicians practice in the United States. That's approximately 5% of the total number of physicians. Because osteopathic schools emphasize primary care training, more than half of all DOs practice in areas such as pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and internal medicine. Each year, 100 million patient visits are made to DOs.

Although most health insurance carriers recognize DOs, be sure to check with your provider to be sure that your policy covers services provided by DOs.

To Find a DO

You can find DOs through the American Osteopathic Association, or through local osteopathic hospitals and state osteopathic medical associations. And many MDs and DOs practice together as members of the same group.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2010
Originally reviewed by: Francis J. Montone, DO

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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