What is an Osteopathic Degree?

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Woman posing
Woman posing

An osteopathic degree is a qualification awarded upon the successful completion of an osteopathic medical school program. In the US, osteopathic degree programs last for four years, and consist of in-class learning as well as clinical or hospital rotations. These programs differ from those that award Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degrees through their emphases on the musculoskeletal system and holistic care. Completion of an osteopathic degree is one of two steps necessary to qualify as a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.), the other step being the successful passage of the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX). Once an individual has qualified as a D.O., she generally must finish her training by completing a one-year internship followed by a multiyear residency.

Usually, students enter an osteopathic degree program following completion of a premedical undergraduate degree. As with all medical training courses in the US, acceptance to these programs is extremely competitive. In addition to a strong undergraduate academic record, successful applicants usually also have high Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, good letters of recommendation, and a history of leadership roles in extracurricular activities.

An admitted student generally spends the first two years of the four-year osteopathic degree program attending lectures in a broad range of subjects relating to the practice of medicine. Subjects studied include microbiology, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, organic chemistry, and medical ethics, among others. For the following two years, she is usually based in a clinic or a hospital, receiving hands-on training in the many facets of patient care. Generally, this period is divided into a number of shorter segments, or rotations, which are spent working in different areas of medical practice, such as pediatrics or internal medicine. This firsthand exposure is intended in part to help the student decide which area she would later like to specialize in.

While osteopathic degree programs are quite similar to programs which award M.D. degrees, the former do have two distinguishing qualities. Firstly, they focus on the body’s musculoskeletal system, viewing it as the site from which many medical conditions develop. As such, they require extensive training in the correction or treatment of health issues within the musculoskeletal system.

Secondly, osteopathic degree programs emphasize a holistic treatment philosophy. In other words, they encourage students to consider a patient’s lifestyle, mental health, socioeconomic status, and so forth. Instead of simply focusing on the symptoms at hand, then, students are trained to determine how the varied aspects of a patient’s life may be contributing to a specific illness.

Once a student has received an osteopathic degree, she must pass the COMLEX to qualify as a D.O. Completing these steps marks only the completion of the first leg of her medical training, however. She must then finish her training by completing a one-year internship followed by a two- to six-year residency in her area of specialization.

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Discussion Comments


Only the American D.O. degree is recognized as equivalent to the M.D. in the United States.

An "osteopath" who does not have an American D.O. degree is not considered a medical physician in the United States.

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