As of January, medical students at the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU can now pursue a second degree: a Master of Public Health.
The dual option is the product of a new partnership between the medical school and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a private Christian university between Waco and Austin. The offering reflects a growing trend in medical education: A nationwide rise in dual MD-MPH degrees that began years before the pandemic.
“I’ve seen how well (the public health degree) complements the clinical degree and improves your skills as a clinician,” said Ariane Secrest, who directs the public health program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “You see things differently.”
The public health degree helps physicians understand a patient in context, she said. For example, the places in which a person lives, works, learns or plays affect that person’s “ability or willingness” to manage their health.
“If you’re telling (the patient) to go on a walk,” she said, “and they live in a neighborhood that’s not very safe or doesn’t have the sidewalks or infrastructure to be able to do that, you’re able to look from a different lens and try to help them, as best as possible, overcome that.”
The additional degree option fits snugly within the medical students’ existing schedules.
While planning, Secrest and Dr. Jo Anna Leuck, associate dean of curriculum at the medical school, uncovered nine hours of overlap between the degrees. Medical students who pursue the Master of Public Health will take those classes as usual, along with 33 online credit hours over the course of their four years in medical school.
“We so carefully arranged this,” Leuck said. “We truly believe that the students are getting exactly what they need to accomplish both degrees, but in this really efficient manner that keeps them from having to take another year away from seeing patients or delaying graduation.”
Students who graduate from the program will receive two degrees — one from the school of medicine and one from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Secrest was already developing an online Master of Public Health degree for the latter school when she bumped into Dr. Stuart Flynn, the medical school’s dean, at a TCU football game in October 2021. She told him about her work.
“‘Well, why can’t you bring that up here?’” she remembers him saying. After the game, she emailed him. “I said, ‘If you’re really interested in this, let’s talk. Because maybe we can figure something out,’” she said.
The first cohort, which comprises two first-year medical students, just over 3% of the 60-person class, began in January.
Charlene Norgan Radler, a former naval officer from Alvin, Texas, is one of them. During her tenure in the military, she met a pilot whose humanitarian work in disaster relief piqued her interest in medicine.
Norgan Radler left active duty and became an emergency medical technician. Next, she earned a master’s in clinical research management at The University of North Texas Health Science Center. She enrolled in the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU last summer.
“I’m very focused on laying a very good foundation,” she said.
The number of students pursuing the MD-MPH degree across the U.S. rose from 149 in 2010 to 796 in 2018, or 434%, according to a 2021 study in Public Health Reports. Those numbers are likely an undercount, the study said, because comprehensive data doesn’t exist. Also, the study didn’t include pandemic-era data, but noted that COVID-19 “shed light on the role of public health in the control of emerging infectious diseases.”
The added degree can expand not only a graduate’s skillset but also job prospects, Secrest said. People with an MD-MPH may work in research, health policy, hospital administration or the government, along with more traditional clinical settings.
Norgan Radler hopes to harness her learning to design an intervention at the community health level. For her research, which Secrest will oversee, she’s measuring clinical outcomes at a free and charitable clinic near the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
The Burnett School of Medicine at TCU already offers students an option through the TCU Neeley School of Business to pursue a certificate in health policy and management, Leuck said.
“We really want to make sure, even within our own curriculum, that every student has a foundation in public health,” Leuck said. “And because that’s an important emphasis for us, it just made sense for (MD-MPH) to be the first dual degree.”
Other dual degree options are in the works, she added.
The announcement comes roughly a year after the medical school’s original partnership, between TCU and the Health Science Center, dissolved. The latter’s medical school, the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, offers a dual DO-MPH degree.
Roughly 2% of medical students graduated with the degree in the past five years, Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine spokesperson Steven Bartolotta said.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.