Medical School Admissions: Is Osteopathy an Alternative to Med School?

Posted by Sally Tan on 8/11/14, 10:03 AM

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Unlike Dr. Nick, Osteopaths are real doctors.

What is osteopathic school?

The ethos of osteopathic school can be traced back to its early roots. Osteopathic medicine was established by a 19th-century frontier physician named Andrew Taylor Still, who believed that many diseases stemmed from imbalances in the musculoskeletal system and could be treated with hands-on manipulation.

Today, in addition to a traditional medical school curriculum, D.O. students also learn the century-old techniques of osteopathic medicine, which involves manipulating the spine, muscles and bones to diagnose and treat patients. For a number of reasons, osteopathic schools have seen explosive growth in enrollment in recent years, and admissions is becoming ever more competitive. Today, there are 30 schools with a total enrollment of 23,000 students, more than quadruple the number of students in 1980. Moreover, osteopathic schools produce 22% of all medical school grads in the United States. Osteopathic physicians are licensed to prescribe medicine and even perform surgery in the US, and contrary to what some may believe, they are real doctors! As such, D.O. school is an increasingly popular route for aspiring doctors wishing to enter the practice of medicine.

Is D.O. school right for me?

Many students choose the D.O. path because of its more personal, hands-on and holistic approach to care, and also the emphasis on community medicine and preventative care, which is being recognized as increasingly important to public health.

Other students see D.O. schools as an alternative to traditional MD schools, particularly if their MCAT scores and academic record may not make the cut for traditional schools. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, students entering osteopathic schools last year scored had average MCAT scores of 27 and a grade-point average of 3.50, compared to 31 and 3.69 for MD matriculants.

Despite these statistics, graduates of D.O. schools tend to do well. More than three-quarters of D.O. graduates successfully “matched” to residency programs – half to MD-accredited programs, and half to DO-accredited programs. Starting next year, the same council will approve all residencies, further mitigating the differences between M.D. and D.O. training. D.O. programs are particularly well suited for students pursuing careers in primary care, since about 60% of D.O. graduates go on to primary care fields like internal medicine, pediatrics and family medicine, compared to about 30% of M.D. graduates. As such, D.O. programs are widely seen as solutions to the US’ estimated 45,000 primary care physician shortage to take care of the additional 32 million Americans covered under the Affordable Care Act and the baby boomer generation just becoming eligible for Medicare.

How do I apply?

Getting osteopathic schools is becoming increasingly competitive. Last year, almost 16,500 students applied for 6,400 spots.

Osteopathic schools look beyond test scores and academic records during their admissions processes. They consider factors such as volunteering and extracurricular activities, and evidence of prevailing under difficult family circumstances, which may make up for a lower MCAT score. In this sense, osteopathic school’s holistic approach to admissions mirrors their approach to patients.

Application for D.O. schools occurs through AACOMAS, a centralized application service that is the equivalent of AMCAS for MD programs. Applicants are required to take the MCAT for admission. Applications are accepted beginning in May of each year, and applicants should apply early because interviews and acceptances are granted on a rolling basis.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to D.O. school?

While historically there has been stigma against D.O. schools, with some calling osteopathic medicine pseudoscience, the medical establishment now widely accepts these approaches today.

For students interested in a primary care specialty, osteopathic school may be the right fit. Many osteopathic schools have a mission to serve poorer neighborhoods and communities disenfranchised from traditional medical care, and a greater proportion of D.O. than M.D. graduates match into primary care.

Another advantage is that osteopathic medicine may present better value of care, an important factor in today’s era where costs of medical care are highly scrutinized. Whereas M.D.s rely on expensive diagnostic tests like CT scans and MRIs, osteopaths rely on the traditional physical exam to confirm their diagnoses.

However, osteopathic school may not be for everyone. Student debt is a serious concern at D.O. schools, because tuition is comparable to that of traditional medical schools, and because many osteopathic schools are private, for-profit institutions that offer limited financial aid for students. In addition, D.O. graduates have to take both the USMLE (which M.D. graduates are required to pass) and COMPLEX licensing exams. Moreover, students interested in competitive residencies such as orthopedic surgery and dermatology should consider M.D. programs, as these specialties rarely accept D.O. graduates. Lastly, the D.O. degree is not as well recognized abroad, which can be a challenge for students pursuing global health careers.

So what’s the bottom line? D.O. programs can be a great alternative for students aspiring to a career in medicine. Our medical school admissions consultants can help you think through the pros and cons of these programs, and give you personalized advice on whether a D.O. or M.D. is right for you. Because both require an MCAT score, get your MCAT test prep started today with Cambridge Coaching!


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