Consider a Master of Public Health in Addition to an M.D.

Public health teaches critical thinking and gives physicians a better understanding of medical policy.

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Earning a degree in public health can teach clinicians and medical researchers the skills to speak the language of policymakers.
Earning a degree in public health can teach clinicians and medical researchers the skills to speak the language of policymakers.

Achieving a Master of Public Health is the best thing I've ever done. Public health teaches critical thinking skills, and this enhanced perspective reinforces adaptability and enables a physician to care for populations through the greater understanding of how decisions made for individual patients shape the entire community.

Healthy communities require more than medications. They need clean water, fresh air, safe food, effective waste management and a watchful eye on communicable diseases. Public health enables individuals to go about the business of enjoying life and contributing to the betterment of society. 

[Learn to balance personal and academic priorities in medical school.] 

An M.P.H. bridges the physician's gap between patient and community. I think about each patient in the context of the originating community while considering the broader implications of care, since the cost of medical care is not finite and the funding stream is not infinite. 

Internationally, public health initiatives have worked to curb Haiti's cholera outbreak from the 2010 earthquake, irradiate polio in Pakistan and prevent malaria through the distribution of mosquito nets in Tanzania. 

Typhus, polio and small pox are almost unheard of in the U.S. thanks in large part to public health vaccination programs. After the U.S. Surgeon General released a report in the 1960s on the negative health effects of smoking, tobacco advertisements were prohibited on television and smoke–free zones continue to rise in work, entertainment and public spaces resulting in a reduction of smoking rates. Seat belt usage and needle-exchange programs were also pioneered by the public health community. 

Public health teaches clinicians and medical researchers the skills to speak the language of policymakers. While well-intentioned and trained in public health or policy, policymakers often do not have firsthand understanding of how health systems operate in real life. 

[Consider reasons to pursue a joint M.D. degree.]

Clinicians and researchers have an obligation to advocate and provide guidance as collective policies have great implications for individuals. Overpopulation, food scarcity and clean water are public health issues, which can be solved through cooperation between policymakers and public health-trained physicians. 

To expand the scope of your medical education with a Master of Public Health, first concentrate on gaining acceptance and doing well in medical school. While initially planning for applications, research medical schools that also have schools of public health, especially those that have combined M.D.-M.P.H. programs. 

If you elect to attend a school which does not have a school of public health, identify a school within an easy commute or consider relocating for a year to your public health school of choice. Also, identify a mentor at medical school who has an interest in public health who can foster your development. 

Discuss the appropriate time to take a hiatus and attend. A natural break in medical school is usually between the second and third years, though some students take a year following medical school. I completed public health school during a one-year hiatus between my third and fourth years of medical school. 

While it is quite helpful to have your M.P.H., there are other opportunities to train in public health after you complete your medical degree, including with the Epidemic Intelligence Service. 

[See how volunteering can bolster your medical school application.] 

If you have interest in international health, health policy and management, maternal-child medicine or epidemiology, a Master of Public Health can easily combine with any specialty to broaden your knowledge base, advocacy skills and contribute to the creation of healthier communities. 

The added bonus is distinguishing yourself from other residency applicants and brushing up your writing skills for opportunities in clinical and basic science research. In many ways, you will reap the benefits of a Master of Public Health degree throughout your career. 

Sylvia E. Morris received her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine and her Master's in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a community health advocate. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.