When it comes to health care, there are many options of providers and specialists. This is to your advantage, but it can all be so confusing. This article is intended to clarify a few of the different types of medical doctors and common terms. While not an exhaustive list, it is meant to aid you in organizing some of the options available.

What are the differences between types of medical doctors? 

In the current medical system, there are three main types of doctors: MD (allopathic medical doctor), DO (osteopathic medical doctor), and NMD/ND (naturopathic medical doctor). All three require a bachelor’s degree and prerequisites prior to obtaining a four-year medical degree from an accredited college. Below I highlight their educational differences. After the four-year medical degree, most doctors specialize in various disciplines, functions of the body, or approaches to care. 

MD: Allopathic doctors are trained in the conventional medical model which is heavily focused on contemporary medicine and frequently implements pharmaceutical prescription treatments and surgical intervention to address symptoms of disease. As you are probably very familiar with what MD’s do, I will not delve into this further for sake of space. 

DO: Osteopathic doctors are less common than MD’s, but a growing portion of prospective students are choosing this route. They receive a similar education to MD’s, however, they also learn Osteopathic (meaning bones) Manipulative Medicine (OMM) which provides them with hands-on physical medicine skills to assist with diagnosis and treatment. The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine states that their curriculum “is holistic, patient-centered, preventive, and focused on health rather than disease.”1 For simplicity, it may be helpful to think of their education similar to that of an MD with a holistic twist. They are integrated comparably into the medical system.

NMD/ND: Although currently the least common medical doctors in the US, NMD’s are quite common abroad and gaining popularity in the states. They receive the foundations of an MD education plus physical medicine skills similar to DO’s. Their education expands on nutrition from the 0-70 hours MD/DO’s receive to 100-220 hours, as well as additional approaches to physical medicine.2 Their curriculum of treatments includes botanical, environmental, and mind-body medicine, homeopathy, IV nutritional therapy, and counseling. Notably, NMD’s are trained in the innate healing power of nature, to view health comprehensively, and to holistically approach both diagnosis and treatment “looking at all the factors that comprise health with the ultimate goal of restoring balance and supporting the natural healing process,” addressing the root-cause of illness, utilizing less invasive therapies, and focusing on prevention.3 

The American Association of Naturopathic Medical Colleges states that the NMD education “combines the wisdom of nature with the rigors of modern science.”2 At this time, the integration of NMD/ND’s into the medical system, and their title, are regulated by each state. (However, regulation of the term “naturopath” varies and can be used freely, without a medical degree, in many states. Always verify your practitioner has the credentials you are seeking.)

So what does “holistic” mean? 

This term is elusive. It can be as broad as including all facets of health into diagnosis and treatment, or as narrow as a treatment plan with two options instead of one. Take this with a grain of salt. When working with any provider that states they use a holistic approach, it is worth having that discussion and learning what it means for them specifically in their practice and finding out if that is congruent with your health goals.

What is “functional medicine”? 

This is an ever-growing niche that is designed to “help established clinicians develop advanced skills and competence in treatment of patients.”4 Practitioners can take classes, do fellowships, or obtain a certification and should hold at least a master’s degree in a health-related field (USA) or bachelor’s degree (international) and current license to practice. A medical doctoral degree is not required. The functional medicine approach typically involves genetics, systems biology, and lifestyle factors to address the root cause of disease. However, the field is ever-changing and can be integrated in vastly different ways in practice. (The term “functional medicine” may be used freely. Make sure your provider has the credentials you are seeking and find out what functional medicine means in their practice.) 

I hope this increased the resolution a bit. It is important to feel empowered to have a frank discussion with any provider about their approach to diagnosis, treatment, and wellness to find one that is in-line with your values. Go the extra step to make sure it’s a good fit. This will optimize your experiences and ultimately your health journey.

Dr. Jainuddin is a naturopathic doctor at One Life Naturopathic and can be reached at (442) 256.5963. For more information visit www.OneLifeNaturopathic.org.

References: 1) https://choosedo.org/overview-of-osteopathic-medical-education-and-accreditation/; 2) https://aanmc.org/comparing-nd-md-curricula/; 3) https://www.nuhs.edu/admissions/naturopathic-medicine/; 4) https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/

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