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Alphabet Soup – M.D., D.O., D.C., N.D.

Andrew Schakel
The Twin Cities Green Guide
When flipping through the yellow pages in search of the appropriate healthcare, we are faced with unfamiliar titles following the doctors’ names. What do these titles mean? This article is intended to provide general information on commonly seen physicians in today’s society. In no way does this article endorse a particular type of physician nor does it recommend a type of physician for your condition.

Medical Doctor, M.D. & Doctor of Osteopathy, D.O.

Medical doctors are often referred to as allopathic physicians. M.D.s as a whole are trained to assess and interpret diagnostic data, order diagnostic tests, prescribe medication and diagnose numerous conditions. The majority of their training is based on conventional, pharmacological medicine. They have a choice in treating patients as a general practitioner or family practice doctor, or they may choose to specialize in a specific field of medicine. The following are some, but not all, of the specialties that exist today: cardiology, radiology, anesthesiology, obstetrics/gynecology, ophthalmology, dermatology, psychiatry, emergency medicine, neurology, pathology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, pediatrics, internal medicine, gastroenterology, pulmonary medicine, community health and surgery. 

Osteopathic doctors are similar to allopathic doctors, in that they are trained in traditional, mainstream medicine and are able to practice the same skills mentioned above. However, some philosophies toward health and healing are different. Osteopathic philosophy has a holistic approach, as practitioners recognize the body’s natural ability to heal. In addition to possible medication, D.O.s may use a "hands on" technique called osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) in order to help diagnose and treat illnesses. For example, a sinus infection may be treated with antibiotics in conjunction with massage drainage techniques. Furthermore, OMT is commonly used with musculoskeletal dysfunctions (mechanical problems of muscles in relation to bones). A patient with a biomechanical (mechanics of the body) injury such as a displaced rib may benefit from a manual therapy manipulation in order to restore the correct mechanics. Focusing on preventive care, ranging from patient education in nutrition to exercise to environmental modifications, Osteopaths may specialize in any area of medicine, but typically practice as general or internal medicine.

Both M.D.s and D.O.s attend four years of medical school following a bachelor’s degree with emphasis in the basic sciences. They must complete a residency which lasts anywhere from two to six years, either in general medicine or a specialty. Both must pass similar national and state licensing exams. They are the only two complete physicians that are licensed in all 50 states and are able to prescribe medication and perform surgery.

Doctor of Chiropractic, D.C.

Chiropractors practice under the philosophy that there is a significant interrelationship between the spine and the nervous system. When the biomechanics of the spine are not aligned, the nervous system potentially may be affected and lead to pain. For example, a displaced vertebrae may cause some nerve root irritation which could lead to pain. Their "hands on" approach utilizes manipulation techniques to realign the spinal column decreasing the effect on the nervous system. When the spinal column and nervous system are in balance with one another, disease prevention and musculoskeletal wellness are promoted. Different types of modalities such as massage, electrical stimulation and ultrasound are used. However, an increasing number of chiropractors are incorporating patient education in exercise and nutrition. Chiropractors cannot prescribe medication and cannot perform surgery, but may order diagnostic tests depending on the patient’s condition and the state in which they practice. D.C.s are required to pass national and state licensing exams and can practice in all 50 states.

Naturopathic Doctor, N.D.

Naturopathic doctors practice medicine from an entirely different approach than alternative Western medicine. Their philosophy is based on a holistic approach incorporating nontoxic forms of treatment. Homeopathy is commonly used in which naturally occurring substances from plants, animals and minerals are prescribed. Depending on the state, N.D.s may prescribe some conventional medicines, but only if naturally based. Prevention, nutrition and lifestyle changes are the main applications of naturopathy. Hydrotherapy and massage are typical, especially with soft tissue injuries. Naturopaths are trained in botanical medicine and psychology and some may receive continuing education in acupuncture and home birthing. They are typically general practitioners and often complement care received from allopathic and/or osteopathic physicians. N.D.s cannot perform surgery and are seeking licensure in more than half of the states today. In Minnesota, N.D.s are not licensed to practice and their care would not be covered by insurance.

If you go to different types of physicians, share with each what you have learned from your other health care professionals. The more information they have, the better equipped they will be to serve you. Check out the professional organizations for each of these types of physicians. They should be able to provide more information to empower you as a patient.

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Act Locally

American Osteopathic Association
142 East Ontario Street
Chicago, IL 800-621-1773

American Chiropractic Association
1701 Clarendon Blvd
Arlington, VA 800-986-4636

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
8201 Greensboro Drive
Suite 300
McLean, VA 703-610-9037

Alphabet Soup

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