Treating the patients you’ll never see

The UGA/GHSU Medical Partnership and the UGA College of Public Health hope to soon offer a new dual degree option for medical students.

Public health is more than just flu shots and birth control.

Professionals in the field of public health assess the wellness of whole populations and figure out how to  intervene for the good of all, in contrast to medical practitioners who treat one patient at a time. Some believe all that public health skills will be crucial for physicians as  health care evolves.

That’s why medical and public health faculty at the University of Georgia  created a new  dual degree program that enables students to complete medical and public health degrees at the same time.

“As soon as the Georgia Health Sciences University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership program got established, right at that time they realized that it would be beneficial to have joint degree programs between medicine and public health,” said John Vena, head of the UGA’s biostatistics and epidemiology department and leader of the committee proposing the degree program, currently in the final stages of approval.

“Students trained in these two disciplines will have an edge because they will then have the expertise to become public health professionals in the state of Georgia and to incorporate population health into their careers,” said Vena.

Pursuing a Master of Public Health degree will add an extra year to students’ four-year medical education – whether they take a “pullout” year or integrate their public health classes into their curriculum. Students in the dual degree program will earn a degree from UGA’s College of Public Health in either biostatistics and epidemiology or in health policy and management.

“Physicians are taught to take care of one patient at a time,” said Richard Schuster, director of the Center for Global Health in UGA’s college of public health.

“When you’re not feeling well, you certainly want to be taken care of as an individual. Yet, modern medicine requires an understanding of systems of care and it requires that the physician understands how a patient fits into a community and the health of the community, and then, even more broadly, the health of the population,” he said.

According to Cheryl Dickson, associate dean for student and multicultural affairs at the Medical Partnership, physicians should ideally be responsible for health of the communities where their individual patients live.

Medical students need to start looking at “what kinds of problems are within their community and the social determinants of health so that they can make more of an impact,” said Dickson.

Turning off the faucet and cleaning the sink

Dickson decided to pursue her MPH after working in a pediatric emergency room in Newark, New Jersey. Seeing the same problems bring kids to the ER over and over, she wanted to learn enough to be a public health leader, so she could make a bigger impact.

“Instead of looking at that individual asthmatic in the ER, I learned how to write grants and how to analyze what was happening in my neighborhood and in that community, and to be able to put together proposals to help all asthmatics – to really make a difference,” said Dickson, who was director of undergraduate medical education at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School before joining the faculty of the Medical Partnership.

An interest in preventing disease also motivated Laurel Murrow, a clinical educator at the Medical Partnership, to pursue degrees in both medicine and public health.

Before receiving her medical degree, Murrow received a Master of Science degree from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which sent her to Kenya to monitor outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever.

“I’ve been interested in the idea of prevention rather than treatment all along,” said Murrow.  “What physicians generally see is the end result of many risk factors that have piled up and eventually led to disease, but in public health you have the advantage of being able to potentially impact many, many people.”

Murrow compares widespread health problems to running water. Whereas treating individual patients equates to catching drops of water as they fall, “public health is where you turn off the faucet,” said Murrow.

Aside from prevention, Athens’ medical faculty are interested in how public health training can improve health care delivery.

Stephen Goggans, an internist who practiced for 13 years before becoming the Clinical Component Director for the Medical Partnership, is currently pursuing his Masters in Health Policy and Management from UGA.

“The things that I’m most interested in are health policy related topics, in particular quality improvement and cost effectiveness analysis,” said Goggans, “and those are things that you don’t really get much in medical school.”

By analyzing how healthcare systems  operate, Goggans hopes to come up with  policies that will bring better care to patients while making the most of healthcare dollars.

Special training for special students

Dickson expects  5 to 10 percent of medical students in Athens will sign up for the MD/MPH dual degree program. She anticipates that those students, like her, will want to tackle large, pervasive issues that affect community health.

According to Dickson, prospective MD/MPH students are eager to make a difference and to see community-wide health problems − such as hypertension and diabetes − diminish during their practice as physicians.

First-year medical student Russell Ledford is going for  both degrees because he believes public health skills will help him become a more effective family practitioner in a  rural community.

“An MPH degree could really help in community planning and could improve the whole community’s health as well as just my individual patients,” said Ledford.

“It never gets old trying to help people to stop smoking, help people to diet correctly, and I think those things will continue to be an issue and something that people need help with because they’re not always able to come up with a good plan themselves,” he said.

“The MD/MPH students won’t be adding a large number, per se, but what they’ll do is they’ll add a difference in character to the classes,” said Schuster. “To put it simply, and with some bias, they are the future leaders of medicine.”


Chelsea Toledo

Chelsea Toledo

Chelsea Toledo earned a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of Georgia in 2007. She entered the Health and Medical Journalism program in 2010 because of its emphasis on fostering social justice. Currently, Chelsea holds an assistantship in the Office of the Vice President for Research, reporting on science and health-related projects undertaken by UGA students and faculty.

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