Often in the news, on the Web and in conversation, we hear the term "M.D.," the well-known credentials of a Medical Doctor, and we think nothing of it. But spot a "D.O." after a physician's name, and you may wonder about what those initials stand for, and what they mean for the quality of your health care.
We turned to Dr. Ann McDermott, a D.O. and family medicine physician at Swedish Covenant Hospital, for some answers.
What is a D.O.?
D.O. stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. All licensed physicians in the United States are either a D.O. or an M.D. and can practice in any area of medicine for which they are certified. I am a primary care physician specializing in family medicine, but you can find D.O.s in psychiatry, surgery, obstetrics, sports medicine and any other specialty.
How do M.D.s and D.O.s differ?
Now more than ever, the training and expertise of D.O.s and M.D.s are nearly indistinguishable. The only differences lie in some additional training D.O.s receive, as well as in the philosophy that D.O.s take a very holistic approach to medicine.
The extra training that D.O.s receive is focused on how to understand and treat the musculoskeletal system, which is made up of the joints, bones, muscles, tissues and nerves.
D.O.s look at the "total person," meaning the body, as well as the mind and spirit. We also largely focus on preventative care and how it relates to wellness or illness for the patient. Many M.D.s also use these techniques and principles in their practices.
What does "osteopathic" mean?
Osteopathic medicine provides patients with hands-on diagnosis and treatments known as osteopathic manipulative medicine, as well as the benefits of modern medicine (including prescription drugs, surgery and technology) when necessary.
What does it mean to treat the total person?
You take into account everything about the person you are treating, including their physical, emotional and spiritual being. You also take into account their support systems, home and work environment, and what impact those issues have on their health. Finally, disease processes can affect many areas and systems in the body, and by looking at the whole person, I can identify the problem and better treat it.
How does osteopathic manipulative medicine work?
Osteopathic manipulative treatments are techniques D.O.s use to diagnose injury and illness, which can affect many different parts of the body in different ways. These techniques involve the D.O. using his or her hands to manipulate the body to improve circulation, release tension and balance muscles. This puts the entire body in a better state for the healing process to begin.
Although learning these techniques is part of D.O. training, not all D.O.s use them. In my practice, I only use it for musculoskeletal dysfunctions, whereas other doctors use it to treat everything from ear infections to asthma.
Are D.O.s common?
There are about 60,000 licensed D.O.s in the United States, which comes to about 1 in every 5 doctors. Swedish Covenant Hospital has more than 30 D.O.s on the medical staff in 12 different specialties, including family medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine and pediatrics.
Have you found that people have misconceptions about what a D.O. does?
People rarely have negative impressions about D.O.s. That is not the issue. The difficulty we run into is that many patients have never heard of osteopathic medicine or D.O.s at all, and are sometimes wary of the treatment they will receive.
We want to reassure our patients and potential patients by letting them know that like M.D.s, D.O.s are highly-trained medical doctors, but with the added benefits of a very patient-centered practice.
How should patients tell which type of doctor is best for them?
It is best to look for a doctor who best suits your needs in the specialty you require before you specifically request a D.O. or an M.D. The most important part of choosing a physician is finding someone who puts you at ease, answers your questions thoroughly and understands your goals.
Is there anything else women in our community should know about osteopathic medicine?
Many conditions largely unique to women, like back and pelvic pain, are often the conditions that respond well to osteopathic therapy. Beyond that though, many women may benefit from health care that is built upon the idea that the body has the inherent ability to heal itself.
Why did you choose to be a D.O.?
I chose to be a D.O. because of the osteopathic philosophy toward patient care. I was a nurse at the Cook County Trauma Unit prior to entering medical school. There, I worked with D.O.s and recognized the special connections these doctors had with their patients. I could not have been happier with my decision.
This article was originally printed in Well magazine, the precursor to this site, in May 2009. Written and edited by the editorial staff of Well magazine and Well Community.