Considering medical school but not completely sure which path between allopathic and osteopathic education to take? They may be more similar than you realize.

It’s a tough choice. There is some disagreement between the two studies, though critique and criticism is much less than it was a decade ago; both disciplines are practically indistinguishable now. According to the Cecil Textbook of Medicine (25th edition):

Other than teaching manipulation, undergraduate medical training for an osteopathic degree (D.O.) is now virtually indistinguishable from that which leads to the M.D. degree. Osteopathic physicians complete conventional residencies in osteopathic or allopathic hospitals and training programs; are licensed in all states; and have rights and responsibilities, such as military service, that are identical to allopathic physicians and surgeons.

“Osteopathic programs are expanding in both number and nationwide enrollment,” says Vanessa Richardson, a senior admissions consultant and former Assistant Director of Admissions for the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine. “As such, they are recruiting medical students aggressively. Osteopathy is dynamic, emerging, and dedicated to long-term doctor-patient relationships.”

So which path is better: the traditional allopathic med school route, or the fast-growing osteopathic med school route? Let’s look at some key factors.

Workforce Presence

While the number of new allopathic doctors has remained relatively constant and will only start increasing modestly as medical schools begin to expand, new osteopathic doctors have been growing for quite some time now. Currently the ratio of new MD students to new DO students is about 3:1.

Program Availability

There are 151 allopathic medical schools currently in the United States that are accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), an independent board of the American Medical Association (AMA). Conversely, there are 39 osteopathic medical schools in the U.S., accredited by an independent board of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). Only two universities offer both accredited programs; Michigan State University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Curriculum

The most obvious difference in the curricula between osteopathic and allopathic medical schools is in the teaching of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM), a type of manual spinal therapy that several types of injuries and illnesses can benefit from. However, fewer DOs are performing OMM and the results are indicative of the movement that osteopathic physicians have become more like allopathic physicians in all respects – fewer perform OMM therapy, more prescribe drugs, and many perform surgery as a first option.

Application Requirements

The average allopathic applicant had a MCAT score of 504.7 and a GPA of 3.56. An average osteopathic applicant had a MCAT of 501.1 and a GPA of 3.45. As many as one third of students who attend osteopathic medical schools had been rejected by an allopathic school; additionally, osteopathic students have a higher failure rate – three times greater – than allopathic students on the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). It should be noted, however, that osteopathic students are required to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX), not the USMLE. Allopathic students are not allowed to take the COMLEX.

Residency Options

In contrast to medical school accreditation, the boundaries between allopathic and osteopathic residency programs are more flexible. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) describes the residency programs it oversees as training in allopathic medicine. Graduates of both osteopathic and allopathic medical schools are eligible to apply to these programs through the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP). Every year, NRMP statistics show that allopathic graduates are more likely to match for non primary care positions than osteopathic graduates.

The American Osteopathic Association accredits osteopathic residency programs, though there have been calls to end the remaining barriers between the two types of programs. Since 1985, a single residency training program can be dual-accredited by both the ACGME and the AOA, and such programs are called combined allopathic/osteopathic residencies.

Continued Training

U.S. physicians are required to complete additional training every few years in order to maintain a license to practice medicine, known as “continuing medical education,” or CME. There are subtle differences in the CME requirements for allopathic and osteopathic physicians and in how CME credits are approved. The requirements for maintaining a physician license for either discipline are almost identical in most states, though there are small differences.

The traditional route of attending an allopathic medical school is still the most popular for aspiring physicians. However, due to the streamlining and similarities of the osteopathic disciplines, someone with qualifications that might seem borderline to an allopathic school may well find just as challenging an educational path in osteopathic medicine, with similar rewards. Both programs strive to turn out the best physicians possible – the main difference being in the title of the degree on their diploma.

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