Is a Medical Degree Enough Anymore?

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The medical career is evolving and becoming tremendously more competitive. There was a time when having any other graduate degree beyond an MD was considered unique. Currently, according to American Medical News (Amed News) in 2012, over 50% of medical students attending the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania were pursuing an additional form of graduate training.  There are many dual degree programs that are offered; the most common are: MD/PhD, MD/MPH, MD/MBA, MD/JD. Students are pursuing these programs to give themselves a competitive edge in academic medicine and a focus for their careers. In this article, I will discuss various dual degree options and highlight how they can supplement one’s career goals.

For students who are heavily interested in basic science research, pursuing a PhD may be a good decision.  These folks don’t mind staying in one area for a great deal of time. It can take eight years or more to finish this dual degree program. However, after completing an MD/PhD program, there are accelerated clinical training pathways that can fast track someone into entering a specialty (e.g.  the American Board of Internal Medicine Research Pathway). Students accepted into such a pathway, may complete a shortened residency (e.g. 2 years) with or without one to two years of a chosen specialty and three years of research. An MD/PhD is great for someone who aspires to run their own basic science laboratory. Often, someone who pursues an MD/PhD will devote most of their time to research and the remaining time to seeing patients (usually an 80/20 split).

The Master of Public Health (MPH) is a popular degree for many reasons. In the article, When one degree is no Longer Good Enough, a surgeon described getting his MPH as “complimenting” his medical training. He felt that it provided an ability to conduct clinical research as well as provide multidisciplinary care. MPH programs provide courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, advanced statistical modeling, biomedical informatics, and much more. Students are taught skills in using statistical software which aids clinicians in analyzing their own clinical data. One can also learn how to conduct quality improvement research. There is also a strong emphasis on outcomes research and understanding patient satisfaction. There is a major funding resource called the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) that provides support for research related to improving health care delivery. The MPH is also pursued by those who have a dedicated interest in global health. Some physicians are interested in working in other countries on mission trips. They want to address a medical need in other countries and help improve the health infrastructure with the local community. This degree is only one year and has much flexibility based on one’s interest.

Those who may be interested in an MPH, but want a more focused degree have other options. The Master of Health Science (MHS) is a directed clinical science degree in topics such as medical genetics. One can also pursue a master’s degree solely in bioinformatics known as the Master of Science in Bioinformatics.  This is a blossoming field that is fueled by the advent of the medical record system. This is a ubiquitous skill that can be used for any type of clinical research including quality improvement and translational research. With this technology, clinicians can use robust clinical data from large clinical repositories. A more specific master’s degree can provide a clinician with skills in a particular topic which makes them unique.

Not everyone wants to do clinical or basic science research in medicine. There are other degrees that are pursued by students who are interested in business and administration. The Master of Business Administration (MBA) leads one down a path towards hospital administration. Hospital administrators oversee hospital operations. They manage personnel, finances, and facility practices. They ensure the hospital is up-to-date in terms of new laws, regulations, and medical technology.  One can also consult for pharmaceutical companies or consulting firms.

Some future clinicians may be interested in law and policy. A degree in law or policy can provide guidance on how to make changes in the law that governs medicine. A Juris Doctorate gives medical students and clinicians a platform to make important policy changes that dictate medical practice and litigation. There is an additional degree that also teaches an understanding in health policy. This is the Master of Public Policy (MPP). This is an interdisciplinary degree that includes exposure to microeconomics, public finance, sociology, and politics of policy process.  These degrees can be a part of a dual degree program or considered later on in ones career.

If time was endless and education was free, perhaps many more of us would pursue more education. Unfortunately education in this country is not free and pursuing another degree could really put one in debilitating debt.  The financial burden of education is a real one. However, there are some funding opportunities. MD/PhD programs are typically free and students are given a stipend with medical insurance. There are many dual programs in which students pay tuition for the MD only, and the medical school covers the cost of an additional degree. As a clinical fellow, there are also opportunities to have an additional one year degree covered by the hospital or through scholarship. As a faculty member, the hospital may also cover costs for additional education. Some institutions may provide one-week courses or seminars for postdoctoral education to clinicians at no cost or through scholarship. In addition, clinicians who apply for NIH grants can receive funding for education as well. When planning a career and considering additional education, it can help to evaluate all of the cost-free options.

There are a plethora of options to further one’s education as a clinician. Pursuing an additional degree will show residency and fellowship programs that you are dedicated to a specific career goal of interest. It shows that you have taken concrete steps toward that goal. Residencies are not just looking for good trainees, but for future faculty colleagues as well. People who can work at their institution and strengthen their academic mission.  However, the majority of physicians in private and academic practice still have the single MD without a second advanced degree.  Many physicians want to solely focus on patient care and that is invaluable.  It is also important to note that even with an MD alone, you can still conduct research or business (although it will take personal initiative).  Attaining an additional degree does give one a competitive edge; however, there are many ways to demonstrate your passion towards medicine.








3 thoughts on “Is a Medical Degree Enough Anymore?

  1. Profile photo of Dr. DaleDr. Dale

    Very interesting article. The thing I beleive you highlight well is that medicine is transforming into a field in which you are now expected to know how to do more than care for patients. At the very least, nowadays you must understand medical billing to some extent. Population health, administration, etc., as we enter a more global world, physicians need to understand such concepts. Take the ebola outbreak for example, many leading the effort to halt it’s progression were and are medical doctors who understand public health (ie some with MPH degrees). When I was starting medical school, I viewed these “extra” degrees ad something that simply helped people gain a competitive advantage to get into medical school or residency. Now I see that they provide valuable skills that are becoming more and more necessary in today’s medical world. Great article.

  2. Profile photo of Dr. MaryDr. Mary Post author

    Excellent comment Dr. Dale!

    I agree. I wish I knew more about the MPH, I thought it was only for those interested in global health. I was fortunate to have a portion of the MPH paid for after medical school in a program called : The Program in Clinical Effectiveness , at the Harvard School of Public Health. Like the end of the article states, you can build valuable skills with tenacity and not necessarily complete a degree. Other important skills, like informatics, is also important for clinical research. I’m learning on my own for now, but perhaps finishing the MPH will boost that skill.

    Thank you for reading!

  3. Profile photo of Dr. DanielDr. Daniel

    Excellent overview. I earned my MHS in clinical research last year via NIH funding. I find that it has enriched my clinical care in many ways. Although I am not currently involved in any research, I’ve learned to better critique the literature and apply these findings into my clinical practice. I often find myself searching for novel ways to enhance my patient’s adherence and overall health. These degrees can be very rewarding. Especially if you can get financial backing.

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