While this is certainly a bigger question than I can completely answer, I will give it a try.
There are two basic ways to become a fully licensed physician in the US:
One is the allopathic route, in which allopathic physicians receive their MD‘s, or Doctor of Medicine, degree. This is the more traditional route, and most of the physicians you see are probably MD’s. They receive 4 years of medical schooling, followed by an internship, and a residency focusing on their general field of choice (Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, Surgery, Psychiatry, etc.). MD’s may also elect to continue their training further by completing additional residencies specializing in a more narrow scope within the general field of their first residency – heart surgery for instance. They receive board certification from the governing body overseeing their field of work, and must pass an extensive examination every 10years to retain it.
The other, slightly lesser known, route is osteopathic medicine. Osteopathic physicians receive a DO degree, or Doctor of Osteopathy, which has the same credentials and training behind it as an MD’s degree. Osteopaths also complete 4 years of medical school (followed by an internship, residency, and potential specialty residency), during which time their training is largely similar to the training that of the MDs receive, with two main differences:
1. In general, MD schools usually focus on learning how to treat the symptom, disease, or system. DO schools, however, focus on a more holistic approach to treating the patient as an entire person, rather than just the issue they came into the office for that day. By considering the various aspects of an individual, it is easier to identify the barriers to good health. The importance of diet and exercise can never be overemphasized, and should be considered with any health problems. Stress also plays a tremendous role in health. As many of us know stress can come in many forms, some of which are not always apparent to us right away. Lastly, spirituality plays a big role in many people’s lives and any conflicts with one’s spiritual beliefs can greatly affect their health. Through this more holistic approach many of the factors associated with illness can be assessed and managed resulting in better health.
This does not mean that you will not find an MD who treats holistically, or a DO who does not, but as a rule, all DO’s have been taught the following tenants in conjunction with their medical training:
The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.
(Tenants found on the American Osteopathic Association’s site)
2. In support of these tenants, all osteopathic physicians are taught a form of medicine called osteopathic manipulation. Osteopathic manipulation is a hands-on approach to helping the body heal, and can be used for a multitude of different ailments. Despite it’s incredible range of applications, the focus of osteopathic manipulation is not on the disease process, but rather the health potential that is within the individual. By focusing on the restoration of health as opposed to fighting a specific disease that may have many different contributing factors, the number of illnesses that can be treated are limitless. DO’s receive training in osteopathic manipulation throughout their years in medical school, as well as in their intern years. Some may choose to further that training during their residencies, usually in conjunction with training as an internist or general practitioner, and others, such as myself, may choose to go even further and complete a residency specializing solely in osteopathic manipulative medicine.
So when you are looking for a physician who can treat you, and not just your ailments, I would highly recommend seeking out a DO for your care.