Your health care options explained with this handy guide


When you’re shopping for something, it’s good to have options to help you decide on the best choice for you.

This remains true when shopping for health care providers. However, determining which of the numerous health care options is right for you can be difficult. Like what's the difference between a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) and a medical doctor (M.D.), or the difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner?

If such questions have you confused, this article is a handy guide to help you understand your options and choose the right health care professional for you.

Doctor of osteopathic medicine

As mentioned above, D.O. stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine, and while D.O.s receive equivalent training to a medical doctor (M.D.), they also receive 200 hours of training in osteopathic manipulative medicine, which is used to diagnose and treat structural and functional issues in the bones, joints, tissues and muscles of the body.

D.O.s, like M.D.s, are found in all medical specialties, such as emergency medicine, neurology and pediatrics. The difference that sets D.O.s apart is mainly philosophical. D.O.s are trained to take a whole-person approach to patient care, not just focus on treatment of a disease. They also focus on wellness and prevention, while considering the patient's mental, physical and emotional status, which contribute to overall health.

Medical doctor

M.D.s and D.O.s are the most highly trained health care professionals. This training teaches them to not only treat symptoms but to view the body as a system and link those symptoms to an underlying condition. Both M.D.s and D.O.s prescribe medication and can perform surgery, something others on this list cannot do.

The current market has seen a shortage of doctors in some areas and in some cases people who believe they are being treated by a doctor are actually seeing a person in another role like one of the next three professions.

Physician assistant

P.A.s are able to perform many of the same functions as M.D.s and D.O.s, including ordering X-rays, conducting physical exams and even prescribing medication. However, a P.A.'s training is limited and these professionals work under the supervision of a licensed M.D. or D.O.

Nurse practitioner

Perhaps the least widely known of the five on this list, a nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who has advanced their education and training — via a master's or doctorate degree — to specialize in a given area, such as women’s health or pediatrics.

In addition to diagnosing conditions, nurse practitioners also prioritize counseling and health education in their work. N.P.s can practice independently in some states while others require them to work under an M.D. or D.O.

Registered nurse

The most common medical professional on this list, R.N.s generally have a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. They have experience assessing symptoms, offering patient support and recording medical histories. As with nurse practitioners, patient education is a vital component of an R.N.'s role.

Yet, while R.N.s are skilled medical professionals, they are not allowed to work independently and cannot write prescriptions. In all cases an R.N. must work under the supervision of a D.O. or M.D.

Finding the best solution for you

So, which health care professional is right for you? Start by matching your needs to the qualifications of the professionals above and from there, search based on what is most important to you. Be diligent in your search, because finding the perfect solution for your medical needs will make it worth the time spent considering all those options.

To find a practicing D.O. in your area, visit doctorsthatdo.org.