March 16, 2001

Dual degrees offer options

Featured Image

Emily Partan, 7, doesn’t know how to react to the brain on display at the Brain Blast held Saturday at the Cumberland Science Museum. Brain Blast was part of Brain Awareness Month. The next event, “Autism: A Search for Genes, A Search for Therapies,” is March 15. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Dual degrees offer options

Key administrative leaders in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine are looking beyond the traditional way of educating physicians – a focus that includes making the medical school a national leader in the number of dual degrees offered.

By August, the medical school, in conjunction with several University departments and schools, hopes to have nine joint degrees in place in addition to the long-established MD/Ph.D program. Four joint degree programs are currently approved and underway. Five others are planned and will be initiated soon.

Dr. Deborah C. German, senior associate dean for Medical Education, has been the guiding force behind the programs, which offer medical students a joint degree in one year less than would be required to earn the degrees separately.

“Students have been able to get two degrees separately, but have had to do it in the full amount of time and paying the full tuition,” German said. “The benefit of these joint degree programs is that it cuts a year off the training and also saves one year tuition.”

German said that increasing the number of joint degrees has been a professional goal this year.

“Our role is to restructure medical education in such a way that it will meet the needs of the future,” German said. “We have a very good medical school program and a very good residency training programs, but there are educational needs that have not yet been met.

“These joint degree programs are part of a larger effort to be sure that Vanderbilt is at the forefront of medical education nationally. We must be at the very front of educating the future leaders and scholars of medicine and make sure we offer all of the possibilities,” she said.

The approved joint degrees are: MD/MBA, a five-year joint medical/ business administration degree; MD/JD, a six-year joint medical/law degree; MD/MPH, a five-year joint medical/Master of Public Health degree; and MD/MSBMI, a six-year joint medical/Master of Science in Biomedical Informatics degree.

Other joint degrees in the offing are: MD/MEd, a joint medical/Master of Education degree; MD/MSBME, a joint medical/ Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering degree; MD/MSCS, a joint medical/Master of Science in Computer Science degree; MD/MDiv, a joint medical/Master of Divinity degree; and MD/MTS, a joint medical/Master of Theological Studies.

The benefits of these programs to society are immeasurable, German said.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, if we had trained a cadre of doctors to understand business, in particular the insurance business and Medicare and Medicaid, perhaps we would have been in a better place today. There would have been a larger number of people who understood both business and medicine,” she said. “They could have helped those who understood only business or only medicine to come together to find common ground and find a pathway that would work for doctors, patients and society.”

German said that pursuing a joint degree is more than just a wish for two degrees. It’s a desire to understand and blend two fields.

“The more knowledge we have, the better we can do the things we do. Having physicians who understand two fields fully, like the MD/JD degree, helps society. These physicians can contribute in a way that neither the physician nor the attorney can alone.” The possibilities are endless, German said.

“A physician trained in biomedical informatics, for example, might be able to use his or her understanding of the two fields to create an information system that will help better communicate information back to patients,” she added.

Students in both disciplines are held to the same high admissions standards for each school.

“This is not a way for a student to get into another school through the back door. The high standards of admissions are maintained in both schools,” German said.

Don Welch, professor and associate dean in the Vanderbilt University Law School, said the joint MD/JD degree fits into the law school’s plan to make the study of law at Vanderbilt more interdisciplinary. Students who are enrolled in the two disciplines bring an important perspective to the classroom and to their work, he said.

“Law and medicine have become increasingly intertwined,” he said. “This joint degree program provides a unique opportunity for those students who want to immerse themselves in both fields in order to better understand the interaction between the two.”

Although this is the first year for the MD/MBA program, the three students who are enrolled are finding the program challenging and rewarding.

Chris Ambrose, who said he has “passion” for science and business, has been interested in pursuing both degrees since he enrolled in VUSM in 1997. He officially enrolled in the dual program last year.

The five-year MD/MBA program works like this. Students attend medical school for three years, then go to business school for a full year. The fifth year is split, summer and fall in medical school and spring in the business school.

“It works out very well because the first three years we spend in medicine allows us to apply the business training to real world experience,” he said.

Ambrose plans to work for a pharmaceutical or biotechnology firm following graduation. He hopes to focus in a strategic planning or business development program.

“The joint degree gives me the ability to understand several aspects of the industry and to communicate with all stakeholders. It also lends credibility in both the business and scientific fields,” he said. “The University offers students the ability to create their own education with the dual degree.”

“Whether their primary interests lie in medicine or business, the students train in both of these worlds, allowing them to more successfully navigate the areas in which the two worlds meet. Both compliment the other. Business training is becoming more and more important within medicine with the rise of cost containment efforts. Additionally, scientific training is invaluable in areas of business that deal with technological products, particularly given the recent rise of genomics and the explosion of the biotech industry,” he said.

Peter Castro, another MD/MBA student, said the medical school’s graduates will be even more prepared to lead medicine in the 21st century.

“Thanks to Dean German leading the development of these dual degree programs, students at Vanderbilt Medical School are now able to explore interests during medical school that would otherwise be neglected,” he said.

Nancy Lea Hyer, former associate dean for Academic Programs at the Owen Graduate School of Management and current associate professor of Management, said the school has been pleased with the program.

“We have the ability to attract extremely bright students who, by virtue of their medical school training, add a new dimension, skill set and prior experience base to our student population,” she said. “For the medical student, the ability to master in a short period of time the fundamental issues and concepts that form the basis for managing and leading organizations today should be a tremendous asset in their careers as physicians involved in the business of medicine.”

Christy Cooper, an MD/MPH student, said it’s been a dream to have a medical and MPH degree for the past seven years. In the first year of the combined program, she plans to pursue a combination of clinical outcomes research and clinical care of patients, either in the United States or the developing world.

“I applied to combined degree programs at several schools but after my interview at Vanderbilt, I knew this place was home,” she said.

“I think having the dual degree program bolsters Vanderbilt’s reputation as a medical school. This is the wave of the future as today’s doctors are being challenged to know something about many different areas, such as business, law, spirituality, and public health. No one doctor can be an expert in every area, but having specialists around who have taken the time to get the necessary training certainly enhances a school’s marketability and a hospital’s ability to serve the community.”