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UTHealth’s M.D./M.P.H. program offers ‘big picture’ view of medicine for students

UTHealth’s M.D./M.P.H. program offers ‘big picture’ view of medicine for students
UTHealth School of Public Health's Sam Neher and Sylvia Salas, M.P.H., advise students in the M.D./M.P.H. program on creating a custom degree schedule that reflects their interests. Photo by Nash Baker.

HOUSTON – (Aug. 15, 2017) – As Ben Silva, M.D., M.P.H., describes it, public health is like zooming out from what you see in front of you. First, you identify a specific health issue in the clinic, then to get a better understanding, you pull back for a view of what’s going on at the city, state and national level.

Silva always wanted to be a doctor, but when he took a public health course in college, he saw the opportunity to view medicine from a wider perspective. He wanted answers to questions about the sources of medical problems and how they could be prevented, which led Silva to the dual degree M.D./M.P.H. program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Through a program at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston and its campuses across Texas, medical students can simultaneously earn a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health in four to five years. The School of Public Health has campuses in Austin, Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio.

Partner medical schools include McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Long School of Medicine, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

Silva’s focus on preventative medicine led him to spending his third year of medical school doing a practicum in the Rio Grande Valley. He worked with Belinda Reininger, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, to implement an obesity intervention program for children in the area.

“Obesity is becoming a bigger problem every day. There is no pill to fix it – you have to change your lifestyle,” said Silva, who has begun his second year in a pediatrics residency program at Dell Medical School, where he is applying the public health knowledge he learned about obesity into his clinical practice. “I think about my work in public health every day when I am in the clinic talking to kids about what they’re eating and drinking so that we can work together to prevent further disease.”

For Silva, who graduated last year from the Long School of Medicine and UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio, the draw to this program was obvious: He could earn a degree in public health without having to add additional years onto his medical education.

“The benefits far outweigh anything I potentially lost. It provides you with a holistic education and approach to health care,” he said.

The M.D./M.P.H program began in 2007 when faculty from UTHealth School of Public Health and McGovern Medical School realized that while medical schools excelled at training doctors how to take care of patients, there was little time to teach students about population health as a whole.

“Doctors have been able to keep people alive longer, but we have more chronic diseases that make them sicker. In order to prevent these diseases, we have to understand what puts a person and population at risk and what the evidence shows regarding risk reduction and disease prevention. That means we have to teach doctors about public health,” said Linda Piller, M.D., M.P.H., faculty coordinator of the Houston M.D./M.P.H. program at the School of Public Health.

The dual-degree students have an option of completing the program in four or five years. Those who choose four years begin with online, core competency classes the summer before they start medical school. Once accepted into the program, students meet with an academic advisor at the School of Public Health to map out their customized schedule for their four- or five-year tenure. The early student-advisor meetings result in development of an overall M.P.H. course plan that allows for deferment of M.P.H. courses during the semesters in which the medical school course load is the heaviest.

Faculty advisors also counsel students on developing a focus area. Focus areas can include topics such as epidemiology, health disparities, maternal and child health or health economics. Students are required to do a practicum, which can include working in a city health department, conducting clinical research or volunteering with a nonprofit that works toward promoting public health. They also complete a culminating experience in their final year, either a capstone course or a written project such as a thesis or policy paper. Piller says many of the papers are ultimately published in peer-reviewed journals.

One of the skills that many students gain with the dual degree is the ability and knowledge to conduct clinical research.

“They understand things like what it means to conduct a randomized trial and what safety data needs to be recorded, and those are all really important parts of research. Participants of the program have the opportunity to learn how to develop a proposal for research funding and that knowledge is incredibly helpful in this difficult funding environment,” said Piller, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Even if students do not want to pursue research on their own, the ability to read and understand research allows them to provide their patients with the best, evidence-based medical advice.

Another benefit of the program is how it prepares students to engage in and understand health care policy. Piller said M.D./M.P.H. graduates are better prepared to understand health care payments and reimbursement systems and to engage in health care policy development.

Piller added that the program attracts high-caliber students.

“The students that come to us are so community-minded and social-minded. Many of them have already been working with underserved populations here in Houston or around the world. Even during their M.D./M.P.H. studies, some students work with social agencies that provide care for at-risk populations and some travel oversees to provide medical care in developing countries. They have an array of interests and passions that are all related to improving the public health,” said Piller.

Since the dual-degree began in 2007, 253 students have graduated from the program, and enrollment is growing. Fifty-one students graduated from the program in the spring of 2017 and 73 are about to begin the program this fall.

For more information about the M.D./M.P.H program and other multidisciplinary programs at the School of Public Health, visit https://sph.uth.edu/academics/dual-degree/ or contact Sam Neher, assistant director of Student Services, at 713-500-2365 or Samuel.E.Neher@uth.tmc.edu.

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