DO versus MD: Which is right for me?

May 31, 2017

DO vs MD by Providence Health's Nicole Edwards, DO

By Nicole Edwards, DO, Providence Family Medicine

Degrees of Difference

When searching for a new doctor, most people know that the letters MD stand for medical doctor, but not everyone knows what the letters DO mean after a physician’s name.

“DO” identifies a doctor of Osteopathy, which in many ways, is similar to a medical doctor. Like an MD, a DO has completed a minimum of 4 years of undergraduate school followed by completion of a degree from a medical school. The difference is that an MD attends allopathic medical school while a DO attends an osteopathic medical school.

All that and then some

Dr. Nicole Edwards with Providence Family Medicine
Dr. Nicole Edwards

In Osteopathic medical school, we take all the courses given at an allopathic school, PLUS extra courses in osteopathy, which is the study of bones and joints. We learn to diagnose medical issues and problems based on the spine and the changes that medical issues cause to the spine.

We also learn how to treat those conditions using our hands to move your muscles and joints with techniques such as stretching, gentle pressure and resistance. This hands on treatment is called manipulation.

For example, if someone has a gallbladder problem, their 7th thoracic vertebra will be rotated and sidebent abnormally toward the right which can lead the doctor to look in the gallbladder or liver for a potential problem. Manipulation can be used to properly align the spine, helping to address muscle and joint problems as well as visceral (i.e. internal organs) problems. Manipulation can also balance the spinal fluid to help with issues like TMJ, headaches, sacrum or coccyx problems, etc.

Like an MD, a DO can go into any field of medicine after medical school including surgery, psychiatry, and primary care. They can also do fellowships to pursue specializations such as cardiology, gastroenterology, hand surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, physical medicine, and rehabilitation, to name a few.

Hands on Medicine

A.T. Still, the founder of osteopathy, based his field of medicine on a whole man philosophy. Because of this, many DOs have a more holistic approach to medicine.  If you see a DO who still actively uses manipulation in their practice, you can get Osteopathic Manipulative Treatments (OMT) for medical problems including but not limited to back and neck pain, hip pain, TMJ, earaches, muscle spasms, spinal alignment issues, and treatment for visceral problems as well like pleurisy, chest wall pain/costochondritis, etc.

Not all DOs actively practice OMT. If you are looking for complete diagnosis and treatment of spinal alignment, it is best to find a DO who specializes in OMT with a completed fellowship in OMT/Osteopathy. Though we all learn the basics, some DOs choose to learn more and focus on spinal alignments for their main field of practice. Simple muscle energy or Facilitated Positional Release can be done at a regular appointment for small issues like back pain following an accident, but more extensive diagnosis and treatment will need to be done with a DO who can take the time needed for proper complete diagnosis and treatment. Entire spinal diagnosis can take 20-30 minutes, and the treatment is then focused on the areas that are causing the most problems at the time of the visit. It usually takes multiple visits to properly treat problems found on diagnosis.

Which is best for me?

When selecting a provider, it’s important that you trust the person giving the care. It’s easier to trust a person who shares your philosophy of the physical body and its ailments.

When you consider sickness or disease: 

  • Do you feel strongly that the systems within your body rely on one another to be healthy or do you feel that the health of one part is fairly independent of the others?
  • Do you feel that the body’s health is primarily the result of chemistry and or do you think structural alignment plays a part?
  • When looking for treatment, do you seek a solution that manipulates the body to improve overall health in mind, body and spirit?

Most likely your philosophy of care is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. In fact, it’s a very rare doctor who leans all the way at one end or the other. But if you find that your philosophy for wellness involves the whole body and its many interactions, and if you believe the structure of the body impacts its ability to function, a DO maybe the doctor for you.


Nicole Edwards,DO, is a family physician providing primary care at Providence Family Medicine in Columbia,South Carolina. She received her medical degree from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her residency in family medicine at Palmetto Health Richland. She is certified by the American Board of Family Physicians. Aside from medicine, Dr. Edwards has passion for music and not only plays the piano, saxophone, harp, flute, and drums; she is also lead singer for the local band H2Flo. She currently resides in Columbia with her husband and two children.