Medical School Life

Should you get a dual degree in medical school?

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Should you get a dual degree in medical school?

May 28, 2024

Pursuing a dual degree path can help medical students grow their expertise and open up additional career paths.

Dual degree programs have grown in popularity in recent years. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, roughly 10% of medical school graduates pursued a dual degree in 2023. Master’s degree tracks usually add about one year to a medical student’s time in medical school. An MD-PhD can take upwards of eight years for medical students to advance to residency.

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To give medical students a clear picture of the dual degree landscape, physicians who went the dual degree route offered key insight and advice.

Dual degree programs appeal to aspiring physicians from a variety of backgrounds with a number of different careers aims. A number of physicians who have gone the dual degree route offered thoughts on their paths and how their dual degrees helped.

MD-MBA (master’s of business administration): This dual degree may equip students to work in an administrative or entrepreneurial capacity in addition to working with patients. It usually takes five years to complete an MD-MBA program.

Maya Babu, MD, MBA, opted to pursue a graduate degree in business to glean a “more in-depth training in finance and strategy.” Dr. Babu, an AMA member, now practices neurosurgery in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

MD-PhD (doctor of philosophy): This dual degree track offers training in clinical medicine and basic science. These programs tend to take seven or eight years.

“I decided to pursue an MD-PhD program to optimize what I [thought] at the time was the optimal path to becoming a physician-scientist,” said AMA member Hans Arora, MD, PhD, assistant professor of urology at the University of North Carolina. “It was a long journey, but certainly afforded me a number of unique opportunities of which I continue to benefit!”

MD-MPH (master’s in public health): Offering an expertise in health care policy and health management, dual degrees in medicine and public health are becoming somewhat common place. They typically take five years to complete.

“I’ve found that my MPH complements my MD and vice versa,” said AMA member Ryan Ribeira, MD, MPH, an emergency physician and a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. “In my clinical work, having a background in health care systems allows me to better help my patients navigate to the care they need. And in my administrative and policy work, my clinical activities help me understand firsthand the effects of system inefficiencies.”

MD-JD (juris doctor): A dual degree in medicine and law may prove useful for those looking to pursue a future in health law or health policy. These programs tend to take about six years.

“Having a law degree certainly has an impact on my understanding of many medico-legal issues that residents confront on a daily basis,” said AMA member Jason Hall, MD, who has a JD and was a practicing attorney prior to making a switch to medicine. “Informed consent is a prime example. Legal education also focuses heavily on ethics which is readily transferrable to the medical setting.”

Dr. Hall now practices anesthesiology at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. 

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Depending on the program in which a student enrolls and one’s own life trajectory, the time at which a physician or medical student pursues a dual degree can vary.

Dr. Ribeira: “I pursued my MPH between [my] third and fourth year of medical school. My thought was that having a bit of clinical experience under my belt would help inform my MPH, and having the MPH done prior to residency would help me start getting involved in [quality improvement and patient safety] research during residency. … In general, the earlier you pursue a dual degree the more it can help guide the direction of your career, but the later you pursue it the more you will be able to tailor your dual degree towards your specific needs.”

Dr. Hall: “I had a complete career as an attorney prior to making the switch to medicine. Medicine was always my first love so to speak, and I have been very happy since making the change. I will say that in terms of MD-JD dual degrees, I believe that law practice is a very important aspect of how my degree has benefited me in medicine. Much of learning to be a lawyer occurs after law school in practice, and it is the time I spent in practice which I believe has given me significant insights into health policy, regulatory reform, and advocacy.”

Dr. Babu: “This varies depending on your specialty, and the political [and] health policy landscape. Depending on your dual degree and the field (such as one with high turnover or attrition), having another career option may be seen as a disadvantage—you may be viewed as someone who may train for a handful of years and then leave residency.”

Dr. Babu: “There are so many challenges in health care, I would say: Apply your dual degree to solving one of these challenges. I've had a fair number of classmates who have left clinical medicine entirely to work for industry. I do not find them to be happy or to have a feeling of fulfillment. I think that is unfortunate. There is a need for nonmedical skills to help improve patient care and workflow processes.”

Dr. Hall: “With the appropriate background in law and completing medical school with or without residency, I'm confident that a number of nonclinical possibilities exist for MD-JDs. Some examples might include ‘Big 5’ consulting, health policy think tanks, in-house [counsel for] organized medicine, in-house [counsel for] medical device manufacturers or pharma, as well as case consulting, expert testimony, or a legal practice focused on health regulation, health insurance, device and drug litigation, as well as torts.”