What is an Osteopathic Medicine Degree?

Osteopathic medicine was founded on the philosophy that all systems of the body are interconnected and work together to heal illness and maintain good health. It is based on the following principles, as articulated by the American Osteopathic Association:

  • The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit
  • The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance
  • Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated
  • Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function

While osteopaths embrace this holistic philosophy, they also embrace the traditional scientific components of modern medicine – prescription drugs, surgery, and other medical technology – that are used to diagnose and treat injury or illness.

This means that the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), like the ‘allopathic’ Doctor of Medicine (MD), can treat the full spectrum of medical conditions. The DO, however, is particularly qualified to treat conditions involving the musculoskeletal and cranial systems, such as muscle and joint strains, arthritis, sciatica, and hormone and immune system imbalances.

Osteopathic and allopathic training are largely the same. Students of osteopathic medicine, though, spend more time learning about holistic care, the value of physician-patient communication in preventative care, and patient education. They also study osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a kind of physical therapy used to treat systemic problems. The premise of their medical education is that the body’s natural state is wellness and that it is not always necessary to revert to medications to begin the healing process.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Any Discipline – Four Year Duration
There is not a specific degree that is required for pre-osteopathic medicine undergraduate study. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), aspiring osteopaths are most likely to earn a bachelor’s in a major from these areas:

  • Biological Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Humanities

Regardless of their chosen undergrad major, students planning to attend osteopathic medical school must meet admission requirements, which typically include:

  • Biology with lab
  • General Chemistry with lab
  • Organic Chemistry with lab
  • Physics with lab
  • Biochemistry
  • English Composition and Literature

Because pre-med students are not required to earn their bachelor’s degree in a science discipline, they can easily apply their undergraduate credits to another course of study should they change their mind and decide not to apply to medical school.

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)

It is common for undergraduates to write the MCAT and begin applying to medical schools in their junior year. Through a set of multiple-choice questions, the MCAT allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.

To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree – Four Year Duration
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine. To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1. A passing score on the COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.

The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians. Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets. It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.

The following are the core rotations completed by osteopathic medicine students:

  • Family Medicine
  • General Surgery
  • Internal Medicine
  • Obstetrics / Gynecology (OB / GYN)
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatry
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine / Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (NMM / OMM)
    Osteopathic manipulation is central to osteopathic training. Osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) is a hands-on method used to treat mechanical pain – muscle, tendon, or bone pain due to structural imbalance – and a wide range of health conditions. It is also used to diagnose and prevent disease and help the body function better as whole. OMT involves applying light pressure, resistance, and stretching to manipulate the muscles, soft tissues, and joints. It encourages the body to heal itself through proper alignment and balance.

The rotation in osteopathic manipulative medicine covers the 40 techniques of OMT. Below is a comprehensive list, with explanation of four of the most common ones.

  • Active Method
  • Articulatory Technique
  • Balanced Ligamentous Tension
  • Chapman Reflex
  • Combined Method
  • Compression of the Fourth Ventricle
  • Counterstrain
  • Direct Method
  • Exaggeration Method
  • Exaggeration Technique
  • Facilitated Oscillatory Release Technique
  • Facilitated Positional Release
  • Fascial Unwinding
  • Functional Method
  • Hepatic Pump
  • High Velocity / Low Amplitude Technique
  • Indirect Method
  • Inhibitory Pressure Technique
  • Integrated Neuromusculoskeletal Release
  • Ligamentous Articular Strain
  • Lymphatic Pump
  • Mandibular Drainage Technique
  • Mesenteric Release Technique
  • Muscle Energy– a ‘push-pull’ technique: the patient moves their muscles in a specific direction while the DO counters the movement
  • Myofascial Release– the DO uses firm but gentle pressure to release the tension in the fascia, which is the layer of connective tissue that surrounds the bones, muscles, and organs
  • Myotension
  • Osteopathic Cranial Manipulative Medicine– the DO applies soft pressure to the skull to stimulate healing
  • Passive Method
  • Pedal Pump
  • Percussion Vibrator Technique
  • Positional Technique
  • Progressive Inhibition of Neuromuscular Structures
  • Range of Motion Technique
  • Soft Tissue Technique– stretching and pressure on the muscles
  • Still Technique
  • Thoracic Pump
  • Toggle Technique
  • Traction Technique
  • V-Spread Technique
  • Visceral Manipulation

Osteopathic medical school attendees also have the opportunity to complete elective clinical rotations in specialties other than the core rotations listed above. These are some options:

  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Dermatology
  • Diagnostic Radiology
  • Medical Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Ophthalmology
  • Pathology
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Preventative Medicine
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Urology

After part two of medical school, students take the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 2. The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.

The first year of specialty training after medical school is called first year of residency or PGY-1 (Post-Graduate Year-1). The following years are called PGY-2, PGY-3, etc. Training after residency focuses on a subspecialty and is called a fellowship. For example, subspecialties of the internal medicine specialty include cardiovascular disease, hematology (blood), and oncology (cancer). The length of residencies and fellowships varies from specialty to specialty. Only top doctoral graduates are accepted into a fellowship training program.

Schools of osteopathic medicine often offer residencies and fellowships in:

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Orthopaedic Surgery
  • General Psychiatry
  • General Surgery
  • Urology
  • Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine / Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine – designed for osteopathic physicians who would like to enhance their expertise in musculoskeletal health and disease

Degrees Similar to Osteopathic Medicine

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems like the brain, the circulatory system, and the immune system function. Coursework includes math, chemistry, physics, engineering, pharmacology, and materials science.

Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Clinical Laboratory Science
Degree programs in clinical laboratory science prepare students to work as laboratory technicians, who use chemicals and other substances to test body fluids and tissues for the purpose of diagnosing diseases. The curriculum combines chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Emergency Medical Technology (EMT Paramedic)
Students who enrol in EMT degree programs learn the skills required to provide emergency medical care. The curriculum includes courses in medical terminology, patient assessment, and advanced life support such as performing respiratory procedures and administering IV fluids, injections, and medications.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Medical school attendees can choose to pursue a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree or a Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree. MDs generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication. Their approach is less holistic than that of DOs, who focus on whole-body healing, with or without medication.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Midwives are health professionals who provide primary care to women with low-risk pregnancies, from conception until six weeks after birth. The training that students of midwifery receive happens in the classroom and in work placements.

Programs are focused on the stages of midwifery care: antepartum (pre-childbirth), intrapartum (labor through delivery), postpartum (following delivery), and newborn care. They cover physiology, primary care of women, reproductive healthcare of childbearing women, fetal wellbeing and complications, and related pharmacology and medicines management.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

This degree program is designed to give students the knowledge and experience for safe, compassionate, evidence-based, competent, and ethical nursing practice.

Naturopathic Medicine
The practice of naturopathic medicine or ‘naturopathy’ is centuries old. This alternative wellness system is built on the belief that the body can heal itself. It combines modern medical methods with a broad range of natural therapies to aid recovery, prevent illness, and boost overall health. Massage, herbs, exercise, nutritional counseling, and acupuncture all fall under the umbrella of naturopathy.

Physical Therapy
Physical therapy majors learn how to treat patients for whom movement has become strained or limited due to injury, illness, or aging.

Physician Assistant
This program prepares students to work as a physician assistant or PA. Under the supervision of a physician, PAs take medical histories, conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, and provide preventative healthcare. They may also assist in surgery and conduct research.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Skills You’ll Learn

Attention to Detail
Diagnosing and treating patients demand attention to detail. Patients’ lives are at stake.

A significant part of the physician’s role is communicating with and educating patients.

Empathy and Compassion
Working with patients on a daily basis calls for someone who is not only adept at monitoring patients’ physical comfort, but sensitive and responsive to the emotional stress they may be experiencing.

The physician who knows their limitations is the best physician, because they know when to call in another specialist to avoid making a misdiagnosis, risking a patient’s health, and triggering a lawsuit.

Physical Stamina
Physicians spend much of their time on their feet.

Stress Management
The medical and health implications of the work can make it stressful.

Teamwork and Collaboration
Physicians are part of a team of medical professionals, who share information and work together for the well-being of the patient.

What Can You Do with an Osteopathic Medicine Degree?

The initial intention of anyone who earns a degree in osteopathic medicine is to practise osteopathic medicine. There are, however, alternative routes for graduates. Here is a snapshot of some potential professional pathways outside of the traditional medical / clinical practice:

  • Public Health Worker – focus on maintaining public health, on preventing the spread of infectious diseases or environmental health hazards
  • Health Journalist – writes about healthcare related issues
  • Medical Teacher / Professor – teaches medical students or educates the public regarding medicine and healthcare
  • Forensic Pathologist / Forensic Medical Examiner – trained to perform medical examinations on the dead
  • Crowd Doctor – a medically qualified doctor trained in managing the medical needs of crowds of people attending large events in stadiums and other venues
  • Medical Photographer – produces images and videos for healthcare, education, or scientific purposes
  • Medical / Pharmaceutical Researcher – conducts experiments and analyzes results to learn more about the human body and potential treatments of disease
  • Sports and Exercise Medicine – SEM physicians diagnose and manage acute, degenerative, and overuse joint and muscular problems
  • Volunteer Work / International Aid and Development – improving the health of people living in less fortunate circumstances or in developing countries; one example is Doctors Without Borders
  • Medical Sales Representative – the liaison between healthcare professionals and the pharmaceutical industry
  • Medical Legal Advisor – works as the interface between the doctor and the legal process, handling a wide variety of files ranging from general advice through to claims, complaints, regulatory issues, inquests, and criminal investigations
  • Occupational Physician – doctors in occupational medicine diagnose, manage, and prevent disease and injury in the workplace; their focus is occupational health and safety
  • Transplant Coordinator – oversees the administrative and medical tasks involved in the organ donation and transplant process; liaises with the patient, the patient’s family, the surgeon, the donor, and the donor’s family
  • Radiology / Diagnostic Imagining Director – oversees a diagnostic imaging (x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs, etc.) department in a hospital, clinic, or university setting
  • Healthcare Equity Research Analyst – uses medical background to give advice on mergers and acquisitions in biotech companies and other sectors of the health industry


Find out what graduates typically earn.

Read about Salary