Osteopathic PreMed FAQ

This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) was designed for the pre-medical student wishing to learn more about the profession of osteopathic medicine. It is under continuous revision, so please feel free to contact the authors at the e-mail address at the bottom of the FAQ with any additional questions.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is osteopathic medicine?
  2. What is an osteopathic physician (D.O.), and are they real doctors?
  3. I thought osteopathic medicine was a drugless form of healing. Is that true?
  4. What is the difference between osteopathy and osteopathic medicine, and between an osteopath and osteopathic physician?
  5. Why was osteopathic medicine so heavily opposed during its early years?
  6. What must one do to become an osteopathic physician?
  7. What type of career opportunities exist for me as a D.O.?
  8. Is osteopathic medicine “alternative medicine?”
  9. What is osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM)?
  10. Where can I find more information?

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: What is osteopathic medicine?

A1: There are presently two complete systems of medicine utilizing all available medical treatments (i.e., medicine, surgery, etc.). They are allopathic medicine which grants the M.D. (Medical Doctor) degree and osteopathic medicine which grants the D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine ) degree. Both are licensed in all 50 states, both serve in all branches of military service, and both are equal in the eyes of the law. Both have their own accreditation organizations: the American Medical Association for allopathic medicine and the American Osteopathic Association for osteopathic medicine.

Osteopathic medicine was founded in 1874 by an American named Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. Still was a physician who was disgusted with the medical treatment practiced by allopathic physicians. He served in the Civil War as a soldier first and, after being wounded, then performed the duties of a surgeon in the Union hospitals. It was here where he grew disgusted at the ineffectiveness of physicians who amputated limbs and prescribed calomel (a mercury based drug which rotted the teeth, gums, and cheeks of the patient) without reservation. His faith in medicine was lessened further as he watched three of his children die from meningitis despite medical treatment. He then dedicated his life to finding an alternative means of healing. Through the laborious study of anatomy and other materia medica he devised “osteopathy” (pronounced: AH-stee-AH-puh-thee).

Dr. Still believed that proper structure of the body’s musculoskeletal system, which could be maintained by occasional manipulation of the soft tissues, enabled the body to function properly and to resist disease by empowering the immune system. Not suprisingly, medications had no part in the early days of this philosophy. It was not until the early 1900’s that medication and surgery, now thoroughly researched, became a permanent part of what is now known as osteopathic medicine.

In sum, what Dr. Still provided was a philosophy. From this holistic philosophy, D.O.s develop new and effective means to treat and care for patients which are then shared with the entire medical community.

Q2: What is an osteopathic physician (D.O.), and are they real doctors?

A2: Osteopathic physicians (D.O.s) can prescribe all forms of medication, perform all manners of surgery, and pursue all medical specialties. They have had identical training as M.D.s (with additional training in the musculoskeletal system) and work alongside their M.D. colleagues in most hospitals. In the eyes of the law, D.O.s and M.D.s are equal.

Q3: I thought osteopathic medicine was a drugless form of healing. Is that true?

A3: No. Although A.T Still originally intended for osteopathy to be a drugless form of healing, we must keep in mind that the drugs of his time were incredibly dangerous. For example, one drug commonly prescribed by M.D.s during Still’s day was Calomel, a mercury-based drug which we know now would be incredibly toxic. During the early twentieth century, pharmaceuticals were being scientifically tested and were much safer and more effective. Only then did D.O.s begin to incorporate drugs into their practice.

Furthermore, for D.O.s to have remained in a position of providing “drugless healing” would have required them to resist over one-hundred years of medical evolution. Osteopathy was founded to be a complete system of healthcare. And to do so, it must be dynamic and thus ever-changing in the face of new scientific findings.

Q4: What is the difference between osteopathy and osteopathic medicine, and between an osteopath and osteopathic physician?

A4: It is easy to be confused concerning the many “osteo” words. The difference is quite simple. The profession was discovered in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Stil1, M.D. as “osteopathy.” As mentioned above, this is a combination of the words “bone” and “suffer.” Literally meaning, “bone suffering.” At the time of its founding, the system did not include medical pharmacology so only manual manipulative “medicine” was practiced by its students. However, over time as drugs became better researched and safer to use (early 1900s), osteopathy began incorporating medications and surgery into their treatment. With the osteopathic profession now offering all medical treatment modalities in additional to osteopathic manipulation, the American Osteopathic Association (the legislating body of osteopathic medicine) decided in 1960 to change the name of the profession to “osteopathic medicine” and the name of the practitioners from “osteopath” to “osteopathic physician.”

Outside the USA, the terms “osteopath” and “osteopathy” are used to describe D.O.S trained there. Non-North American DOs are only instructed manipulative medicine (osteopathic manipulation) and are NOT trained in pharmacology, surgery, etc. Their practice is limited to osteopathic manipulation. (Similar to chiropractors in the US, but not the same) Unfortunately, this adds some confusion to the degree.

Q5: Why was osteopathic medicine so heavily opposed during its early years?

A5: Much of the early years of osteopathic medicine is marked by staunch opposition by the allopathic (M.D.) community. There are many reasons for this opposition. First and foremost, osteopathy initially rejected the hallmark of allopathic treatment. That is, the use of medications. Allopathic practitioners, believing medication to be the only legitimate form of therapy, found osteopathy to be an attack on their livelihood. Worse yet, these osteopathic practitioners were actually succeeding. Thus, osteopathy became competition that needed to be annihilated.

Second, Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. was an early supporter of equal rights for women and minorities. A fascinating example of the dichotomy between the early allopathic and osteopathic perspectives on the acceptance and employment of women can be seen in an event that occurred in 1946. During this year, a large city placed the following advertisement in the New York Herald Tribune: “Doctors Wanted: Women Need Not Apply.” In a response to this discrimination, an article in the Forum of Osteopathy appeared entitled: “Doctors Wanted: Women Urged to Apply.” Yet, Dr. Still did not stop at the mere acceptance of women as students, but he employed them as instructors as well. Jenette Bolles,D.O. a graduate of the University of Kansas, was hired to teach anatomy during the school’s second year of classes. She later went on to serve as vice president of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), osteopathic medicine’s equivalent to the American Medical Association.

Dr. Still also instituted a practice of keeping a women doctor on staff at the school’s hospital to see those women patients who were uncomfortable sharing their gynecological problems with male doctors (For more information on this subject, see Georgia Walter’s 1994 book Women and Osteopathic Medicine: Historical Perspectives). Thus, Dr. Still challenged the status quo of medicine by his willingness to teach women and minorities to become physicians. And again, these individuals that allopathic medicine considered inferior were actually succeeding.

Today, there is no organized opposition of osteopathic medicine. M.D.s and D.O.s work together as colleagues and neither are barred from each other’s institutions. Over the years, the two professions have grown closer together. The D.O.s have grown closer to M.D.s through their presence in highly specialized medical fields. And the M.D.s have grown closer to D.O.s through their recent push toward primary care and more holistic healing.

Q6: What must one do to become an osteopathic physician?

A6: As an undergraduate: The entrance requirements are similar to those required by the allopathic medical schools. The medical education itself involves the same courseware, although D.O.s have additional courses in the musculoskeletal system (via courses such as “osteopathic principles and practice”). The systems of allopathic and osteopathic medicine are so similar, in fact, that it is not unusual to find D.O.s on the teaching staffs of allopathic medical schools, and M.D.s on the staffs of osteopathic medical schools.

The requirements for both osteopathic and allopathic programs:

Allopathic (M.D.) Osteopathic (D.O.)
Pre-Medical Biology (8 Hours)
Physics (8 Hours)
Inorganic Chemistry (8 hours)
Organic Chemistry (8 Hours)
(Passage of the MCAT)
Biology (8 Hours)
Physics (8 Hours)
Inorganic Chemistry (8 hours)
Organic Chemistry (8 Hours)
(Passage of the MCAT)
Medical School Four Years Four Years
Residency Program Options ACGME Approved Programs ACGME or AOA Approved Programs
Residency Specialty Dependent
Three (Emergency Medicine) to seven years (Neurosurgery)
Specialty Dependent
Three (Emergency Medicine) to seven years (Neurosurgery)
Licensing Requirements Vary by State Requirements Vary by State

Q7: What type of career opportunities exist for me as a D.O.?

A7: The sky is the limit. Osteopathic physicians occupy all medical specialties from pediatrics to neurosurgery. They work in solo practices in small towns, and they work in large academic medical institutions. Although, in keeping with the holistic philosophy of osteopathic medicine, most D.O.s do choose to practice in primary care (family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, etc.).

Furthermore, a former surgeon general of the United States Army was a D.O. (General Ronald Blanck, D.O.). In addition, in the 1996 summer Olympic games, the director of the emergency medical services was a D.O. Also, because of a D.O.s additional training in the musculoskeletal system, D.O.s make excellent physicians in a field of medicine they helped found: sports medicine. It is not unusual to find a D.O. as the physician for professional sports teams.

Q8: Is osteopathic medicine “alternative medicine”

A8: No.  Bob Jones, author of the book The Difference a D.O. Makes, summed it up well when he said, “osteopathic medicine is something extra, not something else.” In general, the treatments a D.O. and M.D. offer are identical. However, in some cases, such as pneumonia, osteopathic physicians can offer (in addition to medication) osteopathic manipulation of the ribcage to encourage drainage of the fluid in the lungs.

Q9: What is Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine?

A9: Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM) is a science and art that combines osteopathic philosophy, palpatory diagnostic skills, and Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). OMT is defined as “the therapeutic application of manually guided forces by an osteopathic physician to improve physiologic function and/or support homeostasis.” When properly applied, it can be curative for primary muscular and skeletal pain, and can decrease symptoms (and possibly decrease the need for medications) in systemic diseases.

Q10: Where can I find more information?

A10: For additional information, contact the American Osteopathic Association.

Also, there are several books on osteopathic history. The best book is Norman Gevitz’s The D.O.’s