Intermountain Health logo

Please enter the city or town where you'd like to find care.

Get care nowSign in

Health news and blog

MD vs. DO: What Do These Letters Mean?

MD vs. DO: What Do These Letters Mean?


When searching for a doctor, you may have come across the initials DO or MD after a physician’s name. When you consider all the other healthcare initials out there, like PA, NP, LPN, RN, and DPM, it can get real confusing. What do these letters mean anyway? And how do these initials impact the medical training and role of your healthcare professional?

What’s the difference between MD and DO?

Let’s start at the top. As far as MDs (allopathic physicians) and DOs (osteopathic physicians), both kinds of doctors are board-certified and licensed in all 50 states to practice medicine and surgery, as well as prescribe medication. Both attend four years of medical school, plus a residency program, and both can be primary care physicians or specialize in areas like cardiology, orthopedics, or dermatology. 

Here’s how they differ:

What’s an MD? A medical doctor (MD, or allopathic physician) attends an allopathic (or traditional) medical school that focuses on teaching sciences like anatomy and physiology, the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and providing preventative care. All MDs treat disorders and injuries by using methods aimed at counteracting the problem.

What’s a DO? A doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) attends an osteopathic medical school, which focuses on a holistic view of medicine. An osteopathic medical school emphasizes a whole-person approach to care, such as the environment, nutrition, and all the body systems for diagnosis and treatment — in addition to focusing on the sciences, diagnosis, and treatment. As part of their training, DOs must take additional hours to learn about the musculoskeletal system.

What do other initials in healthcare mean?

Here’s a rundown of a few other initials you might find after the name of a healthcare professional.

What’s an NP or a PA? A nurse practitioner (NP) and a physician assistant (PA) both diagnose and treat illnesses, develop treatment plans, prescribe medications, and serve as a patient’s main healthcare provider. Most PAs have a master’s degree and practice with physicians and other providers. NPs will have either a master’s or doctorate degree, more education hours than PAs, and they can have a private practice in some states. PAs and NPs are also known as advanced practice clinicians (APCs).

What’s an RN or an LPN? A registered nurse (RN) and a licensed practical nurse (LPN) have very different roles, but both care for patients. An RN will have an associate’s degree (and most times a bachelor’s degree) in nursing and may specialize in one area, such as women and newborn or cardiac care. You’ll find RNs administering medication, monitoring patients, documenting care, and consulting with other healthcare providers. An LPN will have about a year of nursing education and perform less technical tasks, like taking vital signs and observing patients.

What’s a CNA or patient care tech? A certified nursing assistant (CNA) and patient care tech may refer to the same role at Intermountain. This licensed professional provides basic care and clinical support to patients. They collaborate with RNs and others, and help with patient and family requests.

What’s a DPM? A podiatrist is a doctor or surgeon of foot medicine (DPM) that specializes in the foot, ankle, and structures of the leg. A podiatrist treats lower extremity disorders, diseases, and injuries. They may have a private or group practice and will have completed four years at a podiatric medical school and at least two years of postgraduate residence training. It’s important to know that a podiatrist is different from a medical doctor (MD) who is an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon. An orthopedic surgeon will have a significantly higher amount of medical training.

To find a doctor near you, search Intermountain here.