DO vs MD vs PA vs NP vs …

Learner Series:

Decoding the Degrees

Table of Contents

Alphabet Soup

That's what I think of when I see all the degrees out there. There are so many titles, degrees, honors, and fellowships, it can all get pretty confusing! So if you feel confused and aren't sure how a PA is different from a PT or a DO from an MD, then you're not alone. We'll go through each degree and talk a little about the role, responsibilities, training, and income of each.

DOs & MDs

Stands For: Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and Doctor of Medicine
Income: ~200k+ after residency. Depends on specialty and a host of other factors.
Training: 4 Years Undergrad + 4 years medical school + at least 3 years of residency (depends on specialty)

I started by putting these together because they have vastly more similarities then differences. For all intents and purposes, if you are competitive for DO school you are competitive for MD school and vice versa - but for VASTLY different reasons. The days of DO schools being easier to get into are disappearing - and by the time you're reading this they may be over entirely. MD students tend to have higher pre-med stats (like MCAT and GPA), but there are plenty of 4.0 DO students out there also. DO students tend to be older, career changers, and bring a lot of experience to the table. However, the days of MD schools being "less holistic" with admissions are nearly over (if they were ever that way). DOs emphasize a holistic view of the patient and it's built into DO training, but you'll realize fast that MDs and MD students also quickly develop this view. If you have strong stats (Grades and MCAT) you'll be more competitive for MD programs. If you are a well-rounded applicant, DO schools will love you. If you have it all - apply where you love and cross you fingers!

DOs and MDs can go into the same specialties, practice medicine in the same way, can all prescribe drugs, can do the same fellowships. They are functionally exactly the same.

How they Differ: They primarily differ in FOUR big ways.

1) The initials after their name.

2) DOs get A TON of additional training in a type of musculoskeletal medicine called Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine.

3) DOs frequently have to put up with people and pre-meds on the internet proclaiming they are lesser doctors or not knowing what they are.

4) DOs have more practice restrictions if they want to work overseas. Although this has been improving.

5) One last thing to mention, there is still some stigma with DOs in certain residencies. If you are aiming for plastic surgery, you'll have an easier time via an MD. That being said, there is no good reason DOs are kept out of these residencies as the training is the same. This discrimination against DOs is changing and programs that engage in it are gradually being shamed into getting their acts in order.

(Also we should note that DOs tended to go more into primary care, but there's nothing saying they have to. I know dozens of ER docs, surgeons, orthopedists, oncologists who are DOs)

So, if you like osteopathic manipulative medicine, especially if you are interested in sports medicine or being an ER doc... Seriously consider applying to DO school. MDs can learn OMM too if they take additional classes - but it's a huge advantage to learn it as a student.

NP = Nurse Practitioners

Think of a Nurse Practitioners (NPs) as nurses with additionally specialized and advanced training.

Income: 100k+ (Depends on years of experience and field.)
Training: Undergraduate degree required. Also typically RNs need to be a Registered Nurse + an undergo an additional 1 - 3 years of training.

This is a wonderful healthcare profession. You'll work directly with patients, you'll interpret and order labs, you'll develop treatment plans, and work hand-in-hand with DOs and MDs. There is a lot of discussion right now about scope of practice for NPs vs Physicians. Expect to hear more about this in the coming years!

PA = Physician Assistant

Don’t let the title mislead you, PAs are advanced practitioners! Versatile and trusted, they are heavily involved with diagnosis, treatment planning, procedures, and so on. 

Income: 100k+ Varies with Experience & Location
Training: 4yr undergrad + PA school for 2-3yrs (awards a master’s degree) + 2000 hours of clinical rotations.

Keep in mind that PA school is very popular… but also very competitive!

PT = Physical Therapist

Not to be confused with a PA, our PT friends are the pros at working with patients to help them recover from any illness of injury that has resulted in physical impairment. If you need to get a patient moving again, no one better to turn to then a PT!

Income: ~50k to start. Can Vary with training
Training: Can be taken to different levels from bachelor all the way up to a doctorate! Expect to spend at least 3 years in training.

If working with people on their road to recovery calls to you, PT is a GREAT choice for a career.


DPM = Doctor of Podiatric Medicine

A friend of mine once told me that being a DPM is a sweet gig, and I agree! You’re a physician and a surgeon and the training can be shorter when you factor in the length of residencies. However, don’t expect an easier time getting into podiatry school. It’s still extremely difficult!

Income: ~150k to 200k+
Training: Bachelors + 4yrs Podiatry School + Residency

Personally, I wish I had considered podiatry more seriously when I was planning to go into medicine. Ultimately my draw towards psychiatry made DO/MD the only paths, but podiatry really is a sweet gig!

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