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How Do You Become an Osteopath?

By Emily O'Brien On Jul 21, 2022
Osteopathy session and treatment

Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) offer a unique, whole-person approach that aims to prevent illness and injury; they’re trained to listen to and partner with their patients to help them live their healthiest lives. Approximately 11 percent of all physicians in the country are DOs. Additionally, more than 25 percent of medical students are currently training to be osteopathic physicians.

The DO field is thriving with young physicians; a surprising two-thirds of actively practicing DOs are under the age of 45. There are currently about 121,000 DOs in practice in a wide variety of specialties and practice settings; however, the majority of DOs (57 percent) practice in primary care, internal medicine, and pediatrics.

DOs are fully trained and licensed doctors who graduated from an osteopathic medical school. While doctors of medicine (MDs) are fully trained and licensed doctors as well, the difference is they graduated from a conventional (allopathic) medical school.

Aside from schooling methods, the major difference between the two is that some osteopathic doctors provide manual medicine therapies as part of their treatment. These might include spinal manipulation or massage therapy. DOs also look at the stress on the neuromusculoskeletal system and its interconnectedness with other organs in the body. DOs complete residency training just like MDs and must also pass the same licensing exam before they can practice professionally and prescribe medications. DOs complete an additional 200 hours of OMM training, which is a hands-on treatment used to diagnose and treat illness and injury.

A DO career might be right for someone who is interested in seeing patients as more than only symptoms or disease and who wants to get to know the background of patients and understand contributing factors to their health, like socioeconomics.

Osteopathic Schooling

So, how do you become an osteopath? It takes a minimum commitment of 12 years of education and training.

Like all doctors, osteopaths need to first earn a bachelor’s degree. While there’s no specific undergraduate track for aspiring osteopaths, candidates who take courses in microbiology, biochemistry, calculus, human anatomy, and physics are typically preferred by osteopathic medical schools. Then students must take the medical college admissions test (MCAT). This 7.5-hour, standardized test assesses knowledge levels of science, reasoning, communication, and writing skills, and it’s divided into four sections:

  • Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems
  • Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems
  • Psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior
  • Critical analysis and reasoning

Earning a Medical Degree

The next step involves earning a medical degree, which typically averages four years. There’s a common misconception that physicians and surgeons who have trouble getting into traditional schools go the DO route instead, but this is simply not true. DO programs aren’t easier than MD tracks, and the competition is fierce no matter which track is pursued.

Osteopathic schools are looking for a variety of personal traits when vetting applicants. They want students who are compassionate and interested in a more holistic approach to care. DOs strive to empower patients toward the body’s natural, optimal state of structure and function and promote self-healing and health.

Osteopathic medical students usually spend their first two years on campus in the classroom, studying basic pathology, anatomy, biology, and other life sciences. The following two years involve clinical rotations before matching into residency training. The second half of medical school is where physicians advance their skills and learn how to work in tandem with other healthcare professionals. They also learn about alternative procedures and how to manipulate the musculoskeletal system. It’s a time to gain hands-on experience through clinical work and dive deeper into different specialties.

After graduating from medical school, osteopathic medical students can apply for their medical license. They can apply to take an exam, depending on their specialty, and become board certified through the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) and USMLE, if desired.

Next up: residency. This might take anywhere from three to eight years to complete, in either a clinical or hospital setting. Osteopaths are required to complete one year of general internship before moving on to a residency. They’ll develop more honed skills and gain additional experience under the supervision of other healthcare professionals. After residency, some osteopaths elect to continue subspecialty training in a fellowship program.

Once professional practice begins, the education doesn’t just stop. To stay current with their license, they’ll need to complete continuing education courses. The minimum hours required vary by state.

Job Outlook

Experts say the DO population is one of the fastest-growing medical professions in the country. This past year marks an 80 percent increase in osteopathic physicians over the past decade! Additional interesting facts from the American Osteopathic Association: More than 30,000 osteopathic medical students are currently learning at 38 colleges of osteopathic medicine across 33 states. There are also more than 22,800 new DOs currently participating in postdoctoral training programs.