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What is an Osteopath?

Understanding the Training and Role of the Osteopathic Physician


Updated June 03, 2014

Doctor writing on clipboard in hospital
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An osteopathic physician is a licensed medical practitioner who was trained in the field of "osteopathic medicine." A "Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine" has "DO" after his or her name. Like an "MD", an osteopathic physician is a fully trained and licensed physician. DOs and MDs are considered equal, legally, and in terms of their authority to diagnose and treat various health conditions, prescribe medications, and perform surgery.

The difference between an MD and a DO is in the approach of the medical education. Osteopathic medicine emphasizes the whole person, and the connection between the musculoskeletal system and disease and symptoms. Osteopathic physicians cover the same curriculum as MDs at osteopathic medical schools, plus, they receive an additional 300 to 500 hours of specialized osteopathic training, studying the musculoskeletal system.

Both DOs and MDs need an undergraduate degree, plus at least four years of medical school. DOs and MDS then need to complete typically 2-6 year internship/residency program, pass state licensing exams, and obtain continuing education to remain certified. Like MDs, DOs can specialize in particular areas of medicine.

Osteopathic medical schools tend to emphasize primary care training, so more than half of the osteopathic physicians in practice are in the fields of pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology and internal medicine.

Some osteopathic physicians function primarily in a conventional capacity, offering traditional diagnosis and treatment. Others incorporate more of the hands-on osteopathic approaches, using the cranial and musculoskeletal systems to help restore balance and relieve neurological, respiratory, digestive, and other symptoms.

Osteopathic physicians who practice using only the hands-on treatments tend to refer to themselves as "traditional osteopaths."

According to the American Academy of Osteopathy, there are currently more than 41,000 osteopathic physicians practicing in the U.S. -- approximately 5% of the total number of physicians in the U.S. Each year, 100 million patient visits are made to DOs.

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