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Senior Correspondent

Q. In my HMO’s provider directory, some of the doctors have a “DO” after their names instead of an “MD.” What exactly is the difference between these two?

DO stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine. MD is the abbreviation for doctor of medicine. MDs are also called doctors of allopathic medicine.

Here are a couple of brief dictionary definitions:

os·te·op·a·thy n. A system of medicine based on the theory that disturbances in the musculoskeletal system affect other bodily parts, causing many disorders.

al·lop·a·thy n. A method of treating disease with remedies that produce effects different from those caused by the disease itself.

Osteopathic medicine is a safe, established practice. Like MDs, DOs must pass a state medical board examination to obtain a license to practice. There are about 15 MDs for every DO in the United States.

Both DOs and MDs are fully qualified to prescribe medication and perform surgery. Like a medical doctor, an osteopathic physician completes four years of medical school and can choose to practice in any medical specialty. However, osteopaths receive an additional 300 to 500 hours in the study of manual medicine and the body’s musculoskeletal system.

An osteopath will often use manipulation — hands-on techniques to make sure the body is moving freely so that all of the body's natural healing systems can function properly.

The osteopath is trained to feel the body’s flow of fluids, motion, textures and structure. The DO applies precise force to promote healthy movement of tissues, eliminate abnormal movements, and release compressed bones and joints. This process is called Osteopathic Manual Medicine (OMM) or Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT).

Osteopathic therapy follows a holistic (whole body) approach to health care.

Osteopathy takes advantage of the body’s natural tendency to strive for good health. DOs often say that the best drugs are within the body’s immune system.

Over the years, the gap between MDs and DOs has narrowed as physicians in both categories have adopted many of the approaches of their colleagues.

Osteopathic physicians who wish to specialize may become board certified in much the same way MDs do by completing a 2- to 6-year residency within the specialty area and passing board-certification exams.

Civil War Surgeon Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO, founded osteopathy in 1874. Dr. Still believed that many of the medications of his day were useless or even harmful. In response, Dr. Still developed a philosophy of medicine based on ideas that date back to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. That philosophy focuses on the unity of all body parts.

Dr. Still identified the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health. He recognized the body's ability to heal itself and stressed preventive medicine, eating properly and keeping fit.

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