What’s the difference between an MD and DO?

Family Health
Jan 9, 2020

St. Joseph’s/Candler primary care physicians also explain internal medicine, family medicine doctors

Looking for a new primary care physician in the new year? The choices can be overwhelming. What’s the difference between internal medicine and family medicine? What’s a DO compared to a MD?

St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care is here to help. We offer a variety of primary care physicians that are board certified in internal medicine, family medicine and/or sports medicine. Our doctors include both medical doctors (MD) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO).

Dr. Michael McNeely

“I think it’s important for people to scout out their doctor,” says Dr. Michael McNeely, internal medicine doctor at St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care located on the Islands. “If you were looking for a lawyer, you’d want to get a recommendation from somebody or check to make sure there’s no bar complaints.”

To help with the medical jargon, let’s look at some terminology you may see when researching your next primary care physician.

Medical Doctor and Osteopathic Physicians

Physicians have earned one of two degrees, an MD or DO. MD, the abbreviation of the Latin “Medicine Doctor,” identifies a physician who has received a degree from an allopathic medical school. DO identifies a physician who has received a degree from an osteopathic medical school. Both are four-year medical degrees with osteopathic training including more attention to and education on the musculoskeletal system.

All physicians must complete one year of additional training after medical school in order to be licensed to practice medicine in the United States.

In order for physicians to become board certified in a particular field, they must complete Graduate Medical Education – or a “residency” – in that specialty and pass the same licensing examination before they can treat and prescribe medications to patients.

“I’ve worked with some excellent DOs, and I do think some of the osteopaths with that background do well with patients with muscular complaints,” says Dr. McNeely, who is an MD. “But I think for most patients, the differences are so small it doesn’t matter.”

Related Article: Four reasons to choose a hospital-affiliated primary care physician

Internal Medicine and Family Medicine Doctor

There are two other categories primary care physicians fall into: internal medicine or family medicine.  All are board-certified primary care doctors. The biggest differences include training and the patients they see.

Dr. Russell Lake

As with all physicians, primary care doctors have obtained a minimum of a bachelor’s degree as well as a four-year medical degree, explains Dr. Russell Lake, family medicine doctor at St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care in Pooler.

The difference begins with residency training. Internal medicine doctors do a three year residency program specifically in internal medicine, focusing on prevention, diagnosing and management of disease and chronic conditions in adults only.

A family medicine physician’s three-year residency program includes integrated training in several medical areas including pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, psychiatry and neurology, for example.

To become board certified, physicians must pass an exam to become board certified in their field, whether it’s internal or family medicine, after completion of residency, as well as maintain their certification through periodic training and assessments.

Due to their training, family medicine doctors can opt to treat patients of all ages from prenatal and newborn through geriatrics, says Dr. Lake. Internal medicine doctors, on the other hand, only treat adults and have a specific niche in diagnosing and managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, COPD and high blood pressure, Dr. McNeely says.

That might be something to consider in your search for a primary care doctor. In the end, what may be most important is to look at a doctor’s compatibility with your healthcare needs, Dr. McNeely says.

It’s also important to your health that you develop a relationship with a primary care physician, regardless of your age or health, and see him or her on a regular basis – at least once a year.

“Primary care physicians are your first point of contact for your medical care, and we also can help integrate any specialty care that you need,” Dr. Lake says. “As a primary care provider, I can get to know you and what’s important to you and then help you make decisions that affect your healthcare based on what’s important to you.”

Related Article: Are you seeing a healthcare provider annually?

St. Joseph’s/Candler has more than two dozen primary care physicians that see patients across the region from Savannah to Richmond Hill to Statesboro to Hilton Head. Find one right for you by searching here.