Types of Degrees*
There are two paths to becoming a physician—getting your Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree or getting a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. While the end result is the same—a career as a physician—the training and education are somewhat different. Usually the first two years are didactic (classroom instruction) and the second years are clinically based (rotating between various medical specialties in hospitals and clinics).
Some medical schools take a “systems-based” approach to the curriculum, covering one physiological system at a time (the circulatory system, digestive system, etc.), while others use a “case-based” approach that exposes students to real-world scenarios that need to be solved using their reasoning skills and existing theoretical knowledge. Students learn about the human body and disease by following individual patient cases from start to finish. Some medical schools combine approaches.
Allopathic Medicine, or Allopathy, is a term which refers to science-based, modern medicine, such as the use of medications or surgery to treat or suppress symptoms or the ill effects of disease. Traditionally (and by numbers of graduates) the M.D. is the predominant medical degree. There are over 150 Allopathic Medical Schools in the United States. Gaining admission requires a strong record of academic success, clinical experiences (shadowing, working in a healthcare setting, etc.), volunteering, a competitive MCAT score, and strong letters of recommendation. Following the 4 year program, an M.D. must complete a residency in a chosen specialty which may last anywhere from three to eight years, depending on the specialty.
An Osteopathic Physician, or D.O., is a board-certified physician who is fully licensed to practice in every state and in more than 65 countries worldwide. As licensed physicians, they diagnose, treat, prescribe medications and perform surgery. The 4 year program, while similar to that followed by an M.D. medical student, includes extensive training in Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine – a distinctive system of hands-on diagnosis and treatment that focuses specifically on the musculoskeletal system. D.O.s are trained to focus on the whole person, working in partnership with patients to help them achieve a high level of wellness by focusing on health promotion and disease prevention.
Although the majority of D.O.s have chosen to practice General or Family Medicine, they are able to practice the full scope of medicine in all medical specialties, from Pediatrics to Geriatrics, Sports Medicine to Trauma Surgery.
Osteopathic medical students complete four years of medical school, plus three to nine years of additional medical training through internships and residencies in their chosen specialties. Similar to M.D.s, D.O.s also must pass state licensing exams and national boards after earning their degree.
Physician Assistants are medical providers who are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease, and to prescribe medication for patients. They work in physician offices, hospitals and clinics in collaboration with a licensed physician.
A fundamental differences between a P.A. and an M.D. / D.O. is that Physician Assistants go to P.A. school for 2 years (not 4), the P.A. degree is a Master’s Degree, and a residency is not required unless certain specialties are chosen.
The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) makes it easy to apply to multiple PA programs using a single application, one set of transcripts, one set of letters of recommendation and one personal statement.
In its 2016 ranking of best health care jobs, U.S. News and World Report ranked Physician Assistant (PA) fourth in best health care jobs.
* For more information see https://explorehealthcareers.org/
Preparing for Medical School
The undergraduate years of preparing for medical school (MD, DO, or PA) involve rigorous academic studies in the areas of biology, chemistry, and physics. Those years also should include volunteer and healthcare-related activities, such as shadowing, working / volunteering in a hospital or doctor’s office, mission-trips, gaining patient contact hours, working with children, etc. Admissions committees at medical schools not only want to see strong GPA and MCAT scores, they also value an applicant’s heart for the needs of others, and that they possess an understanding of what is involved in being a physician.
Specific courses to help prepare students for applying to medical school (M.D. or D.O. degrees) are: General Chemistry (1 yr), Organic Chemistry (1 yr), General Biology (1 yr), Physics (1 yr), Biochemistry, Physiology, Psychology, Sociology, and Statistics. Additional recommended courses are Genetics, Physiology, Immunology, and Anatomy. View the Course Planning Guide for Pre-Med.
Generally, you can choose whatever major you wish and then add in other required courses you will need. If you choose to major in the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry) the majority of the prerequisite courses are included in the major.
A career as a Physician Assistant (P.A.) also requires specific coursework that is similar to that of an MD / DO program, but is slightly different and may include additional psychology courses, microbiology, and a course in medical terminology. Many PA programs require applicants to have a lot of patient-contact experience already, such as a nurse or EMT would have. Applicants are encouraged to gain patient contact experience either by working as a Nurse Aide (SRNA / CNA) or as an EMT. Applicants usually take the GRE instead of the MCAT. Visit each PA school’s website for specific requirements.
Most medical schools (MD / DO) require applicants to have an undergraduate degree completed before beginning their program. Below is a brief summary of the process. (See Dr. Branan for more information.)
Take specific prerequisite courses (Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Biochemistry, Psychology, etc.), shadow physicians, participate on mission trips, volunteer, etc.
Take the MCAT (Medical Colleges Admissions Test); request letters of recommendation from professors; fill out application to medical schools (AMCAS for M.D. or AACOMAS for D.O. online applications); send copies of all college transcripts.
Interviews with medical schools, receive acceptance(s) to medical school, complete all Foundations requirements and electives needed for undergraduate degree.
Contact Dr. Bruce Branan, Asbury’s Advisor for the Health Professions, for more information and for help in preparing for a career in medicine.