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Are these primary care doctors MDs? or DOs?

What Exactly is the Difference Between a DO and MD?

March 23, 2022
When it comes to selecting a good healthcare provider, the goal is finding someone you can trust who is going to provide excellent care. You might not have given much thought before to the letters behind your practitioner’s name, but what exactly is the difference between an MD and a DO? Is one better than the other?

First, the basics: MD stands for medical doctor or Doctor of Medicine, and they practice allopathic medicine while DO stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Allopathic means treating symptoms and disease while osteopathic looks at the “whole person” and what other factors, aside from underlying symptoms, might be contributing to health issues.

Both attend four years of medical school and must complete a residency, but osteopathic physicians receive extra training in principles and practices around the idea that you cannot separate the mind, body and spirit when it comes to medical care.

“We look at the whole person to understand how structure relates to function,” Robin Motter-Mast, DO, FAAFP, CPE, Chief of Staff at GBMC HealthCare and Family Medicine Physician at GBMC Health Partners Primary Care—Hunt Manor, said. “If you visit an osteopathic physician, they are going to evaluate your entire person and ask questions that help them understand how you are doing emotionally, how you are doing physically, do you exercise, what’s your social structure look like to support you, etc.”

Dr. Motter-Mast stresses that osteopathic approaches to medical care have become more common, and, as society at large has seen the benefits of this type of practice, an allopathic physician will often take more of a holistic approach to patient care. However, for those seeking a medical provider, a DO suffix indicates training in and a commitment to this type of practice.

According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), “the number of osteopathic physicians in the U.S. climbed to nearly 135,000—an 80% increase over the past decade.” As of 2021, 11% of all physicians in the United States were DOs. One even oversees the President’s healthcare.

At GBMC, there are 34 employed DO physicians, 17 of whom practice in a primary care setting, which is the most common setting patients would see a DO. According to AOA, 56.5% of DOs nationally practice in primary care while the percentage for allopathic physicians is much lower. GBMC has osteopathic physicians in surgery, gynecology, emergency medicine and more.

“I was a nurse for 10 years and saw my osteopathic colleagues had an inherent bedside manner, which is what attracted to me to it,” Jonathan J. Hennessee, DO, a family medicine physician at GBMC Health Partners Primary Care—Padonia, said. “When I started researching it, I decided I wanted to do primary care. After practicing reactionary medicine in the Emergency Department, I wanted to go back and learn to practice preventive medicine.”

Dr. Hennessee earned his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, CA, while Dr. Motter-Mast received her degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in PA. There are currently no osteopathic doctoral programs in Maryland, but Morgan State University—recognizing the need for homegrown primary care providers—was in negotiations in 2020 to establish an osteopathic program before COVID-19 held up talks.

DOs share a lot of similarities with MDs, but they also have some things in common with chiropractors. Because osteopathic physicians believe in treating the whole person, they look at how the structure of the body works together to maintain healthy functioning. To that end, they tend to focus a lot on the spine.

“Both chiropractors and osteopathic physicians believe symptoms can be traced back to the spine, and that if the spine is in alignment, that would naturally allow everything to fall into place and function a bit better,” Dr. Motter-Mast said.

As part of their education, DOs are trained in manipulations of the spine. Dr. Motter-Mast defined the difference as an alignment (chiropractic) versus an adjustment (osteopathic). Chiropractors are not medical doctors but can—and do—treat existing pain and inflammation of the joints with forced pressure and manipulation. Osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT), on the other hand, is more of a preventive measure that involves massage, stretching and light pressure. While patients visit a chiropractor specifically for treatment of an injury, OMT is just one tool in an osteopathic physician’s toolbelt to treat the whole person.

A DO is a blended healthcare smoothie of medical doctor and chiropractor with a sprinkle of holistic medicine thrown in. While they are trained in a whole-body approach to care, all GBMC clinicians—MD, DO, FNP, CNRP and more—are committed to delivering the best care for patients every time.

Choosing the healthcare provider for you all comes down to preference. As Dr. Hennessee says, “there is a physician out there for everyone. My bet is you would always have a good interaction with an osteopathic physician.”
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