What is a MD-MPH degree, and what jobs does it prepare you for?

BY Rich GrisetAugust 25, 2022, 5:46 PM
The immunization section is seen at the Orange County Health Department, as seen in May 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy—NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to an explosion of interest in the medical field—a phenomenon dubbed the “Fauci effect”—the percentage of students pursuing a dual doctor of medicine and master’s of public health degree had skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2010 and 2018, a study published in the peer-reviewed public health journal Public Health Reports projects that the number of students pursuing the dual degree grew 434%.

“It gives them a whole other perspective of caring for a population,” says Dr. Jo Marie Reilly, coauthor of the report, professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, and director of the USC Primary Care Initiative. “They feel like it completes their training, for lack of a better word, and gives them a set of skills that’s going to make them a better doctor.”

Increasingly, the health care system is looking for physicians trained in population health—a term for efforts to improve the health of entire populations of people—who can apply leadership, epidemiological, and health data management skills to address the health of communities.

That’s where attending an MD-MPH program can be valuable. MD-MPH holders are equipped to tackle a wide range of issues, such as increasing the ability of health systems to address pandemics and infectious diseases or assist with other public health issues like the opioid crisis. Students pursuing the dual degree generally start their MPH coursework after their first or second year of medical school in either a four- or five-year program.

Read on to see if an MD-MPH is right for you.

What is an MD-MPH degree?

Reilly knows of the growing need for MD-MPH holders first-hand. After receiving her medical degree from Georgetown Medical School in 1991, she returned to college to obtain her master’s degree in public health from USC in 2017.

“The world has changed,” she explains of her decision to get her MPH. “When I went to medical school, there was not a lot of teaching of the things that MPHs do teach now, and more medical schools are [now] teaching, to some degree. I wanted that skill set to better enhance the work that I was doing.”

These days, Reilly says that pursuing an MPH degree can strengthen the abilities of medical doctors, such as leadership skills and gaining a better understanding of health care delivery, public policy, systems-based care, advocacy work, epidemiology and biostatistics work, and population health.

Dr. Benjamin Springgate, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine, received a MD-MPH in a joint program two decades ago at Tulane University—and says he was motivated to pursue the dual degree in order to impact the health of large groups of people.

“If we look across the major health challenges that face the United States and the world today, many of them pertain to population health level concerns,” says Springgate, who is also LSU’s chief of community and population medicine and director of its MD-MPH program. “A master’s in public health can offer the opportunity for a physician to learn how to manage health systems, to increase access and quality of care.”

What does obtaining an MD-MPH degree entail?

Generally, there are two ways to pursue a joint MD-MPH program: a compressed four-year program, and a program where students complete a standard four-year MD program with an additional year spent on MPH coursework. Typically, students begin their MPH coursework after their first or second year of medical school.

Reilly says there are a handful of schools that conduct MD-MPH programs in four years, but most take five years to complete. USC used to offer the program in four years, but Reilly says it wasn’t “very successful” for a variety of reasons.

At some schools, including USC, the institution pays for the extra fifth year for students to obtain the MPH portion of the program. Some schools have agreements to obtain state funding for the MPH portion with the idea that these students will go on to take leadership roles and work with underserved communities.

Reilly says that the average school with an MD-MPH program enrolls up to five students a year; larger programs usually number up to 10 a year.

“It gives them a whole other understanding of health care delivery systems in the world that they practice in that they have no clue about,” Reilly says of students enrolled in a joint program. “They just don’t get that training in medical school. It gives them a whole other perspective of caring for a population.”

In addition to preparing medical students for the field, Reilly says pursuing an MPH gives them a break from some of the requirements of an MD degree. “The four years of medical school are really a treadmill of clinical and diagnostic skill training,” she says. “It’s a very fast pace, and there’s not a lot of space to step back, read, breathe, consider the broader system in which they’re going to work.”

Obtaining the dual degree in four years essentially means that students give up any down time they would have had for pursuits unrelated to clinical training. “It takes weekends, evening and any summer break that they might have had,” Reilly says. “Students just have to understand that this is a ‘foot on the gas’ kind of approach.”

With both the four- and five-year programs, students generally undergo a public health practicum with an agency engaged in public health work to apply the knowledge and health skills they’ve acquired.

“It is certainly rigorous and not something to take likely,” says Springgate of pursuing an MD-MPH degree. “Anyone who is applying to medical school and who has made it into medical school has already performed well academically, has already demonstrated that they can work hard, has already demonstrated that they can balance a number of competing demands. Anyone who’s interested, honestly, should take a look and see if it’s the right fit for them.”

What jobs does an MD-MPH degree prepare you for?

A dual MD-MPH degree prepares graduates for even more job career opportunities than having just one of these advanced degrees. Medical professionals who have this dual degree may go on to pursue jobs in academia, government, health departments and agencies, research, policy making, international and nonprofit organizations, and health care delivery systems.

Holding an MD-MPH is particularly helpful for people who are interested in working in data, research and statistics, Reilly says. “The students who are practicing in 2022…need those skill sets, certainly to take on leadership positions, but also to practice good medicine.”

What’s more, the pandemic has pushed the medical field to take a greater interest in population health as it relates to infectious diseases and access to care for underserved patient populations, Reilly adds.

Many MD-MPH graduates go on to work for city and state health departments, federal health agencies, and large health care systems, Springgate says. Some people work within the industry to develop new drugs or lead the development of clinical trials for therapeutic agents or diagnostic tools, he adds, while other dual degree holders may specialize in epidemiology or behavioral health, working to tackle challenges like HIV or hunger and malnutrition.

“While being an expert clinician and physician is one way to tackle health problems, having the additional ability to think about populations and ways to address population health challenges would add value to [combatting] the types of challenges that we face as a society,” Springgate says. “There really are a wide array of potential end points.”

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