What is Osteopathic Medicine and How Is It Different? | PCOM
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About Osteopathic Medicine

What is Osteopathic Medicine?

Osteopathic medicine is a "whole person" approach to medicine—treating the entire person rather than just the symptoms. With a focus on preventive health care, Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) help patients develop attitudes and lifestyles that don't just fight illness, but help prevent it, too.

How is osteopathic medicine different?

DOs are complete physicians who, along with MDs, are licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery in all 50 states. But DOs bring something extra to the practice of medicine—a holistic approach to patient care. DOs are trained to be doctors first, and specialists second. The majority of DOs are family-oriented primary care physicians. Many DOs practice in small towns and rural areas, where they often care for entire families and communities. Learn more about the differences between DOs and MDs.

What is osteopathic manipulative medicine?

Osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) is a comprehensive approach to health care in which osteopathic physicians apply osteopathic philosophy, structural diagnosis and use of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) in the diagnosis and management of patients.

As part of their osteopathic medical school studies, DOs receive extra training in manipulating the musculoskeletal system—your body's interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones that make up two-thirds of your body mass. This training in osteopathic manipulative medicine provides osteopathic physicians with a better understanding of how an injury or illness in one part of the body can affect another.

The art and science of OMM pertain to the assessment of the impact of the malfunctioning neuromusculoskeletal systems on health and disease, and designing appropriate interventions which often include some form of OMT. There are approximately 15 major types of OMT and more than 1,000 individual techniques.

OMM is incorporated into the training of all osteopathic physicians. With OMM, DOs use their hands to diagnose injury and illness and to encourage your body's natural tendency toward good health. By combining all other medical procedures with OMM, DOs offer their patients the most comprehensive care available in medicine today.

How long does it take to become a DO?

The osteopathic curriculum involves four years of academic study, with an emphasis on preventive medicine and holistic patient care. DOs serve a one-year internship, gaining hands-on experience in family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics-gynecology, pediatrics and surgery. This experience ensures that osteopathic physicians are first trained as primary care physicians—even if they plan to pursue a specialty. Many DOs then complete a residency program in a specialty area, which typically requires two to six years of additional training.

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History of osteopathic medicine

Andrew T. Still, a doctor who was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of 19th century medicine, pioneered osteopathic medicine. He was one of the first in his time to study the attributes of good health to better understand disease. Dr. Still's philosophy focuses on the unity of all body parts and identifies the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health. He introduced the idea of returning the body to health through manipulation based on a thorough understanding of the body's systems.

See Also: A History of Osteopathic Medicine in the United States

In 1892, Dr. Still obtained a state charter to establish the first osteopathic medical school in Missouri. Despite a legislative attack on the osteopathic profession mounted by allopathic physicians (MDs), the profession grew. Vermont was the first state to recognize the osteopathic profession in 1896. In 1897, the American Association for Advancement of Osteopathy (now the American Osteopathic Association) was founded in Kirksville, Missouri. 

FAST Facts About Osteopathic Medicine

Specialties and practices
  • Approximately 57 percent of practicing osteopathic physicians in the United States practice in the primary care specialties of family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and osteopathic manipulative medicine.
  • A significant portion of these DOs, comprising 62%, are aged below 45, indicating the appeal of primary care as a preferred specialty among early-career physicians.
  • The top five non-primary care specialties include emergency medicine, anesthesiology, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), general surgery and psychiatry.
  • Many DOs fill a critical need for health care by practicing in rural and other underserved communities near where they completed medical school.
Profession growth and demographics
  • The osteopathic medical profession continues to grow. The number of practicing DOs in the United States has more than quadrupled since 1990.
  • The profession is also getting younger. In 2023, more than two-thirds of actively practicing DOs are under age 45.
  • The number of women joining the osteopathic physician continues to rise. In 2023, 44 percent of practicing DOs are women, up from 32 percent in 2010.
  • More than 7,800 new osteopathic physicians enter the workforce each year. Approximately 148,800 fully licensed active osteopathic physicians currently practice the entire scope of modern medicine in the United States.
  • More than 25 percent of medical students in the country today are training to be DOs.

Sources: American Osteopathic Association (AOA), American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM)