Need a doc? Want a DO or an MD – deciphering the letters

There are MDs and DOs.

When it comes to expanded choice for you as a patient when you need a doctor, which should you choose?

President Donald Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, has been an emergency physician in the U.S. Navy for more than 14 years. He once served as a flight surgeon and has special training in combat trauma. Now, his mission is to care for the president. But it’s the initials that follow his name that some find even more fascinating.

Like Trump’s physician, Dr. Gregory Wallman, NorthShore University HealthSystem internal medicine physician, is a doctor of osteopathic medicine. That means the letters that follow the internal medicine physician’s name are DO not MD, which signifies “doctor of medicine.”

“The idea behind a DO education is to treat the whole body rather than just the disease,” Wallman said.

According to the American Medical Association, The AMA affirms that individuals with MD or DO degrees are physicians and eligible for membership in the AMA. There are significant similarities in the structure and content of educational programs leading to the MD- and DO-degrees and allopathic physicians and osteopathic physicians train side-by-side in all the same medical specialties.”

Like MDs, DOs go to medical school for four years. An internship, residency and fellowship often follow. They must pass a national medical board exam before they can practice, again, just like a medical doctor.  

“All the rights and privileges of an MD, I did the same training as any other post-medical school trainee would do,” Wallman said. “I actually did my residency at Evanston hospital.”

And when it comes to the level of care, both DOs and MDs can prescribe the same medicines and treatments. And while osteopathic physicians receive additional training in the musculoskeletal system, they should not be confused with osteopaths, who practice physical manipulation of muscle tissues and bones.

“My basis is in science, so anything that I’m going to prescribe or use I’m using all the evidence-based medicine I can use,” Wallman said. “If those alternative therapies are effective, we use that as part of our plan of treatment. But it’s not the ultimate way that we treat patients.”

According to the American Osteopathic Association, DOs make up 11% of the physician population in the United States.

“The idea of ultimately trying to understand every part of a person’s wellbeing – what their personal situation, is what their social situation is –  taking that in conjunction with the actual disease process allows me to get a better handle on the overall picture and ultimately treat the underlying condition,” Wallman said. “To be honest, there is no distinction in my mind, so whether it’s a DO or MD, as long as patients are getting good medical care, that is what is most important.”

Today there are about 121,000 licensed and practicing osteopathic physicians in the U.S., with that number expected to grow.