By: Ryan Kelly
Milli Desai is currently a third year medical student at UC San Diego. She loved studying biology as an undergrad at UC San Diego, but always felt the urge to apply life sciences on a larger scale. As an undergrad, she studied abroad and interned with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency at health clinics for refugees in Amman, Jordan, and became interested in both population health and clinical medicine. After undergrad, she completed a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before applying to medical school. Public health has enabled her to better understand health disparities, and how to make healthcare more equitable for all populations as a future physician.
Below are her tips for applying to MD/MPH programs.
Picture a community on a hill where people live in houses next to a swift, flowing river. You visit this community and are horrified to see that the children are being carried away by the dangerous river as they play outside. The community is distraught about this environmental hazard.
Do you run to the bottom of the river bed and rescue the children? In our analogy, those who rush to the aid of these children are the pre-meds who instinctively want to help save lives. But while lives are being saved at the bottom of the river, the root problem hasn’t been addressed - children continue to be dragged into the river from the top of the hill.
Building a public health intervention at the top of the hill, like a safer area for children to play in, would prevent this problem in the first place.
This example is a well-known illustration about the differences between clinical medicine and public health. The time people spend with healthcare professionals in hospital or clinic settings is often not as impactful as the social circumstances they live in. Their neighborhoods, education, and social networks will shape the well-being of communities. If you’re interested in learning how to BOTH save the children at the bottom of the river AND prevent more children from being hurt in the future, you should consider applying to a combined MD/MPH program.
Read more about public health from the CDC: https://www.cdcfoundation.org/what-public-health
Taking courses in public health is not the only way to learn about the subject or integrate its principles into your career. But it can absolutely provide a framework for understanding how to keep people and communities healthy.
Does this mean you need to be a public health major? No. My major was human biology, but I also stimulated my interest in public health through a minor in global health. Explore your options and choose courses in fields that complement public health. Public health courses span multiple fields, so you may take classes in various departments history, anthropology, sociology, math, biostatistics, epidemiology, medicine, biology, psychology, etc.
For example, taking public and global health alongside biology allowed me to understand the full spectrum of life - from cells to communities - and piqued my interest in pursuing my MPH.
Just as there are many disciplines within public health to study, there are many ways to get involved. MD/MPH programs often have requirements within their programs to complete “field work” and/or complete a capstone project that applies to real public health problems. As a pre-med interested in public health, your goal should be to get exposure to the interdisciplinary components of public health projects. Many projects qualify as exposure to public health: population-level data research, biostatistics and epidemiology analyses, and community outreach and engagement.
An experience that lasts a whole summer or whole year (or better yet, multiple years) is better than a single-day community outreach event. If you participate in a community outreach event - for example, a health fair in a rural community - try to continue that experience so it does not stop at a single event. Reach out to the organization to continue to work at future health fairs, or organize new events in partnership with communities.
For example, I became interested in how infectious diseases affect marginalized populations in urban areas. I found a program which partnered with community organizations and hospitals to offer HIV testing and counseling training and certification through the Public Health Department of Baltimore. I was able to work longitudinally for one year at primary health care clinics and emergency departments, while contributing to the public health department’s goals of educating medically underserved adolescents about HIV transmission.
This list will help you market yourself to get a research position, job, internship, etc. As an undergrad, I emailed 20+ professors to get involved in their population health projects by stating my interests and list of three things mentioned above. I only received a handful of responses, but it was worth it to learn about the various projects and receive valuable mentorship from faculty.
Medical schools will usually feature their dual degree programs on their website. It’s important to note that you can apply directly to a combined MD/MPH or MD/other graduate degree program, or you can choose to apply to an MPH/other graduate degree after you are already in medical school. Medical students generally pursue an additional degree in a one-year program in between their third and fourth years.
A notable example at University of California (UC) medical schools is PRIME (Program in Medical Education). Each UC medical school has its own focus which revolves around underserved medicine and care for diverse patient populations. Most PRIME programs also provide opportunities and funding to pursue a master’s in between the third and fourth years of medical school. This master’s can be in a wide variety of fields, and many students choose an MPH.
Other considerations to keep in mind when researching medical schools: is the school affiliated with a public health institution? If so, you can start getting involved in research and/or community projects as a medical student before and during your MPH. If not, identify the faculty members who are involved in public health research and community projects to help you when applying to an MPH program in medical school. It is also possible to apply for an MPH degree at a different institution while completing your MD; this may be appealing if another institution offers you specific concentrations of interest. Make a note of what you are interested in, and read the tips below on how to ask schools questions about the available options
Let’s fast forward to medical school applications. You’ve demonstrated your interest in public health by taking courses and getting involved in a community health or research project. In your medical school application essays, focus on creating a story about your motivations towards studying medicine and public health in tandem.
Medical schools like seeing a cohesive story which integrates your motivation and experiences together. Rather than saying you want to prevent diseases in communities and treat individual patients, tell a story about how your experiences in public health made you realize the importance of prevention, and how you hope to work on disease prevention in your future career as a physician. Be specific and give detailed descriptions of the work you have done.
Throughout the application process and interviews, ask schools (students, faculty, etc.) about the options for obtaining a dual degree. How many students in each class pursue a dual degree? How many are MPH degrees? Does the school help with your application for a master’s degree program? Is there funding available for this additional year of training? If past students attended another institution for their MPH, what school did they choose and why? What populations of patients did students serve and what projects did they work on? Do students who graduate with an MD and MPH degree feel that their MPH helped them achieve their residency goals, and more importantly, prepared them for their clinical practice?
Keeping these tips and questions in mind, we hope you’ll feel more prepared to start thinking about applying to MD/MPH programs! Best of luck!