Typically, a medical degree opens up a world of life-saving patient care, while a law degree provides entry to courtrooms, boardrooms and the halls of power in which policies are set.
But with the two fields increasingly intersecting, medical schools and law schools are partnering to offer dual-degree programs designed to equip medical students with the legal expertise needed to address the growing complexities of modern health care.
Now, the University of Miami's School of Law and Miller School of Medicine are among those institutions, offering a joint M.D./J.D. degree program that can be completed in six years – one year less than if the degrees were pursued separately. Medical students who apply to the program in the fall of their second year of medical school, and are accepted, will begin taking Law School courses their third year.
Two of the architects of the new initiative, Miami Law Dean Patricia D. White and Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education and Associate Professor of Medicine, hosted a discussion session recently at the Miller School to acquaint students with the program's intricacies.
"We rely on each other – deeply," Dean White said of lawyers and doctors. But she warned the students that the rigorous dual program – designed to prepare physicians for careers in health sector law, leadership and policy, or for running a private medical practice – is not for everyone. It will require "particular sets of talents, interests and ambitions," Dean White said, to take on "the full set of options for both professions."
Dean White, who launched a similar dual-degree program at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law when she was dean there, said it would take "a certain kind of person who would be able to undertake the intensity to have this done in six years."
Nevertheless, she went on, participation in the program ultimately "creates an extraordinarily well-educated person who would have an amazing complement of talent and would be able to do any number of things."
Dean White introduced her audience at Miller to just such a person: Brian Wilhelmi, M.D., J.D., who was the first medical student to enroll in the dual program offered by Arizona State and the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn.
"He really understood both cultures – the cultures are interestingly different – but if you appreciate those differences, you can become of both,'' Dean White said, adding that the joint program provides "a unique set of options when you put the two skill sets and education together.''
Intrigued by the new program, Wilhelmi decided he needed a break from "the cold winter nights in Rochester." So, after completing two years at Mayo, he moved 1,600 miles to Arizona to begin his two-year legal sojourn, which was followed by two final years of medical school. He received his law degree in 2007 and his medical degree in 2009.
Wilhelmi, now an anesthesiology resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said he is pleased by the many options available to him after residency, which he highlighted in a PowerPoint presentation. Among them: scientific and executive positions in new device companies, corporations, health law, government, elected office, and numerous jobs that might influence health policy.
"This is not the beaten path," Wilhelmi said, adding that UM students will have the distinct advantage of pursuing both degrees in the same city, as well as opportunities to be mentored by lawyers, physicians, and a handful of faculty members who have both an M.D. and a J.D.
After the first two years at the Miller School, those who are accepted into the joint program will spend the next two years at the law school, completing 77 credits. The remaining 11 law credits can be completed during the final two years of medical school, and will include courses that earn credit toward both degrees, including Scientific Evidence: In Theory and in Court; Family Law; Insurance Law and Policy; Health Care and the Constitution; and Elder Law.
At the conclusion of Wilhelmi's talk, the nearly two dozen students in the room were ready with questions for him and Dean White, Dr. Mechaber and two other architects of the joint program – Sandra S. Abraham, the executive liaison to Dean White for interdisciplinary programs, and Mark O'Connell, M.D., senior associate dean for educational development and the Bernard J. Fogel Chair in Medical Education. Students asked them about the work load, the LSAT, the bar exam, mentorship and scholarships, which they learned will be available at an annual $15,000.
First-year Miller School student Noy Ashkenazy, who confessed that she has never looked at an LSAT book, said what she was hearing "sounded great."
"I am interested in health policy and I want to be involved in shaping the health care system," Ashkenazy said. "I want to be a very knowledgeable physician and this is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal. But it is obviously something to think about before jumping into such a big commitment."
Sarah Sonny, one of Ashkenazy's classmates, said she had been eager to hear more since learning that the joint program could become a reality during her time at UM.
"I am intrigued by how they are combining the two fields," Sonny said. "I have never been exposed to the legal world, or the policy world, but I am interested because I can clearly see that earning both degrees has the potential to open many doors."
Dr. Mechaber and Dean White said more discussions sessions would be forthcoming to help answer the many questions students might have, even though, as Dean White acknowledged, enrollment will always be small.
"We think of it," she said, "as a very special opportunity for a very special type of person."
From left, Mark O'Connell, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Educational Development; Sandra Abraham, Executive Liaison to Dean White for Interdisciplinary Programs and Initiatives; Miami Law Dean Patricia D. White; and Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo
Brian Wilhelmi, M.D., J.D., the first medical student to enroll in the dual program offered by Arizona State University and the Mayo Medical School. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo