Joint degree programs hold increasing prominence in the healthcare field and other professions. For instance, a lawyer with a medical degree (JD-MD) can tout the specialized knowledge of injuries and illnesses in representing clients injured in automobile crashes, industrial accidents and product liability cases.
Here, we focus on the joint degree of the Medical Doctor/Masters of Public Health (MD/MPH). By combining these disciplines into a single program, academics and professionals in the medical field recognize the role of community, environmental and other conditions in the public at large affect individuals’ medical outcomes. Below, we describe the field of public health, how you get into medical school, the steps to get both your MD/MPH at the same time, and where an MD/MPH can take you in your career and service to the public.
The Practice of Medicine and Public Health
An MD/MPH integrates principles of the practice of medicine into public health. Both address injuries and illnesses, but from different perspectives and with different remedies.
The Treating Physician
In a traditional four-year medical school program, you acquire the tools and knowledge to treat individual patients. As a physician, you will collect information on blood pressures, oxygen levels, blood sugars and temperatures, among vital signs. Physicians use the data and observations of symptoms and conditions to diagnose the illness. As with diagnosis, the treatments — surgeries, prescriptions, pain management or physical therapy — are tailored to the patient.
The Public Health Professional
With a public health perspective, you get a broader view of the causes of injuries and illnesses. Public health seeks to identify causes of and remedy health problems among the population at large. If you pursue an MD/MPH or even just an MPH, your career may involve:
Environmental health: Poor air quality may impair the respiratory systems of populations, especially elderly ones or those already in poor health. Other concerns for environmental health professionals include chemicals and other impurities in water, food contamination, lack of sanitary conditions in assisted living facilities or schools, and the presence of virus and bacteria in food preparation or other settings.
Occupational health: Injuries to workers can arise from hazardous workplace conditions such as objects or liquids on floors, lack or nonuse of protective footwear or eye protection gear, and inadequate exits. In the field of ergonomics, public health professionals evaluate how workers injure themselves through excessive or unnecessary extensions of arms and legs or through poor lifting and posture.
Community health: With community health, you focus upon access to health care as a major factor in sickness. For instance, rural communities and poor areas often have insufficient numbers of physicians, clinics or hospitals. Many individuals cannot access adequate healthcare for want of insurance or other resources to afford healthcare. Such individuals may forego doctor visits or medications in an effort to save money for other essentials such as housing, food and utilities.
The Solutions of Public Health
The emphasis of public health on a larger community affects the approach to curing illnesses. While physicians prescribe medicines, perform surgeries or use tailored therapies, a physician with an MD/MPH has the tools to advance public education, initiatives and policies. Public health solutions may include immunization initiatives, advocacy for affordable health care policies such as expansion of Medicare, Medicaid or other governmental assistance for health care; and regulations such as air or water quality standards, occupational safety regulations, and restrictions on commercial food preparation in individual homes.
What Jobs Come With an MD/MPH?
If you have an MD/MPH, your career path can include destinations with hospitals, government agencies, academic institutions, clinics and nonprofit health providers and advocacy agencies. You might conduct research within or even direct the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
Outside of the federal government, jobs for those with an MD/MPH may include directing state or local health departments, medical schools, public health degree programs, organizations that promote women’s health or underserved populations and research entities.
An MD/MPH can enhance your medical practice even if you focus on treating individual patients. The knowledge of issues affecting a population may help you focus on a cause for the patient’s particular ailment. For example, known or suspected contamination at a restaurant may direct your attention to a culprit for particular symptoms that are consistent with the contaminant or unsanitary condition.
Getting Into Medical School
To earn an MD/MPH, you need to enter medical school in order to obtain a medical degree. Doing so involves cultivating a record of academic work, scoring on admissions tests and demonstrating exposure to medical and public health settings through volunteering and other work.
Your undergraduate course of study should contain subjects that prepare you for medical school, the test required for medical school admission and your Master’s in Public Health. Traditionally, medical school students choose majors in biology and chemistry. Within these majors, you have courses such as:
- Organic chemistry
- Molecular Biology
With these courses, you learn how various elements and compounds are formed and interact with the body. Clearly, any student interested in a medicine must exhibit solid familiarity with organs, organ systems, cells and other components of the human body.
In both medicine and public health, you also address the causes of diseases. To that end, your studies should include viruses, bacteria, other microorganisms, and the environment. To understand the effects of pollution, weather and climate on health overall and in a population, take classes in physical and environmental science.
The Humanities and Social Sciences
Medical schools take larger numbers of applicants with science majors. To be sure, you need a strong science background to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). We discuss the MCAT in more depth below.
However, studies suggest that your chances at medical school admission stand greater if you major in one of the humanities. This is because fewer applicants come from the humanities ranks than the sciences of chemistry and biology. In fact, the study reports that one out of every two philosophy majors were admitted to a medical school. Along with philosophy, other humanities (i.e. social sciences) include religion, history, English, literature, non-English languages and cultural/gender/ethnic studies.
In fact, many majors or courses of study afford you tools for a combined MD/MPH program and career. With the emphasis of MD/MPH on public health and health policy, you should study sociology, psychology, political science and at least introductory law. The latter two fields address how laws and policies are made and what government bodies or agencies are involved in public health regulation.
The Research Tools
In an MD/MPH career, you wear hats of doctor, researcher, public health advocate and policy consultant. Your work involves data, observations and other analytical tools. Thus, you should take classes in math, calculus, statistics, medical science, psychology and sociology. In statistics, you learn the importance of mean, median and especially standard deviations so you can assess the reliability of studies and statistics.
Other Distinguished Classes
With the prevalence of candidates for medical school with chemistry and biology-related majors, find some classes that distinguish you. Spanish can serve as one, especially as it shows you can meet the language and cultural barriers to health care experienced by members of the Latino community. Taking art or music, even to the point of having a minor in them, allows you to display a diversity of talents.
By no means does your GPA constitute the sole or even primary factor in getting into medical school. However, how you performed academically as an undergrad does count toward your admission to medical school. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the overall admission rate for applicants with a GPA north of 3.79 stood at 64.6 percent. The average GPA among the 53,030 who applied and entered medical school in the 2020-2021 academic year registered at 3.60. Approximately 46 percent of those whose GPAs ran from 3.60 to 3.79 — less than half — were admitted.
Your journey to medical school includes a stop at the MCAT exam. The test, which you can currently take online, covers four general sections:
“Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems”
“Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems”
“Physiological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior”
“Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills”
Questions in these sections cover topics such as molecules, cells, tissues, organ systems and various influences on human behavior. The MCAT also assesses your skills in the types and methods of research and drawing conclusions expected of you in the medical and public health fields.
Calculating Your MCAT Score
The MCAT consists of four sections as noted above. You get a score for each section, and the numbers for each section are added to arrive at your overall MCAT score. In each section, you can score between 118 and 132, with 125 falling in the center. For the overall test, the minimum is 472, and the maximum rests at 528. The overall middle score is 500.
What MCAT Score is Needed for Medical School?
The score you need for admission will turn on the school itself. You can contact the admissions office for information such as the average or median MCAT scores of those who enter the particular schools. Depending on the institution, you might not get an absolute minimum because admissions committees and officers may consider and weigh other factors, such as grades, experience and unique parts of your background.
That said, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) publishes stats on MCAT scores. In 2020-2021, the 53,030 applicants and matriculants to medical schools averaged 506.4 on the MCAT. The mean score for those accepted to medical school rises at least six points higher than the midpoint MCAT score.
Across the board, acceptance rates to medical school across GPA scales rose with MCAT scores. For instance, in the 2018-2019 to 2020 and 2021 academic years, 86.6 percent of applicants with a GPA above 3.79 and an MCAT greater than 517 were admitted to medical schools. That runs higher than the 64.6 percent acceptance rate overall for applicants earning more than 3.79 on the GPA.
Preparing for the MCAT
Start preparing for the exam by taking the courses we have mentioned above, including chemistry, biology, biochemistry, sociology, statistics and math. The Association of American Medical Colleges offers a free downloadable guide to the MCAT, including suggested courses, timelines for coursework, and various providers of exam preparation and mock testing. You can also find practice MCATs through the AAMC.
Current medical students and physicians you know or encounter make valuable preparation resources. You get from these sources personal accounts of how they prepared and their experience taking the exams. As may be the case with you, those who readied themselves for and took the MCAT encountered financial, physical or other forms of personal adversity. In the AAMC’s guide, you will see videos and blogs by those who faced and overcame various challenges on their way to scoring well on the MCAT and into medical school.
Undergraduate GPAs and MCAT scores take precedence as factors in medical school admissions because these benchmarks measure your ability to handle the rigors of a medical school curriculum. However, you should not discount having experience in a medical setting. These opportunities include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Transcribing medical records or prescriptions
- Medical scribe jobs
- Volunteering in a hospital or clinic
- Working as an emergency medical technician
- Research assistant or research volunteer with a hospital or medical laboratory
As a rule of thumb, strive for 50 hours of clinical or medical-based experience in your premed journey. In addition, working as a volunteer firefighter or in assisting with medical brochures or fundraising campaigns can show your involvement in public service or health education.
The Masters of Public Health Part of an MD/MPH
What is the Course of Study for the MD/MPH?
Most MD/MPH programs run five years. As with standalone MD programs, you spend four of the years for an MD/MPH track in medical school. In the first two years of medical school, you undergo classroom and laboratory instruction. The curriculum of a medical school includes anatomy, biology, pharmacology, pathology and biochemistry. You will also learn about patient intake and interviews.
In your third and fourth years of medical school, the focus shifts to practical experience. You gain this through rotations at the campus or affiliated hospitals. At some teaching hospitals, medical students may assist, on a limited and supervised basis, with surgeries or other treatments.
The timing of the public health curriculum of an MD/MPH program varies by school. For some institutions, you complete the traditional four years of medical school, followed by public health courses. Some schools place the public health portion between the medical school years. In the public health part of the MD/MPH, courses explore matters such as global health, epidemiology, public health policy, global environmental health, finances and budgeting in public health, biostatistics in the public health context and the history and philosophy of public health. You take the public health portion of MD/MPH classes usually through the university’s school of public health.
When to Apply for an MD/MPH
Colleges and universities vary among when you may or should apply for your MD/MPH. Some schools allow or require you to apply for the MD/MPH at the same time you apply for medical school. At other institutions, you must already be in medical school to get the public health part of the MD/MPH. In those places or whether the university gives you the option, application and admission to the MD/MPH program occurs after the first, second or even third year of medical school.
Criteria for Admission to an MD/MPH
If you apply for an MD/MPH during medical school, your application should indicate strong academic performance. You likely should also get recommendations from medical school faculty, physicians or directors of agencies or clinics at which you have been employed.
As with medical school, decision makers for MD/MPH programs want to see experience that demonstrates your interest, involvement and commitment in public health. Internships and volunteer opportunities help you in that endeavor. If you’re interest in public health, you might start in your undergraduate years finding opportunities with:
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control
- National Institutes of Health
- State or local health and human service departments
- Occupational health and safety agencies
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state or local environmental protection offices
- Hospitals or clinics
Is an MD/MPH Right For You?
As you consider a medical career, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a joint MD/MPH. The pros come in your ability to earn two degrees in a five-year period. Without a joint MD/MPH, you could still seek a Masters of Public Health in the future or even prior to medical school. To split the degrees would require more time and extra financial commitments from you.
With a joint MD/MPH comes time pressures and rigors above that already found in medical school. In deciding on an MD/MPH program, consider whether you want to have the medical school path of coursework and clinical training to be a doctor interrupted by classes on biostatistics, environmental health, community health, budgeting and occupational health.
At International Medical Aid, we offer internship, shadowing, volunteering and other learning opportunities for those in medical school and in MD/MPH programs, and those aspiring to enter these career fields. We concentrate our mission of improving health care in regions most in need, such as South America, East Africa, and the Caribbean.
Let Us Help You Become an MD/MPH
International Medical Aid also assists you in becoming a physician engaged in public health through our admissions consulting. Among other things, we can review your applications, conduct mock interviews to prepare you for the real encounters with medical schools, and develop with you strategies for getting into medical school.
Contact us today to start your path of service in medicine and to public health.