Miller School and Law School Launch Joint M.D./J.D. Degree

Traditionally, a medical degree opens up the wonderful world of life-saving patient care, while a law degree provides entree into courtrooms, boardrooms and the halls of power where policies are set. But with the two fields increasingly intersecting and overlapping, medical and law schools are partnering to offer dual degree programs designed to equip a certain kind of medical student with the medical/legal expertise needed to address the growing complexities of modern health care.

Now, the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and School of Law are among them, 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. On March 9, two of the architects behind the new initiative, Patricia White, dean of the law school, and Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education and associate professor of medicine, hosted a session at the Miller School to acquaint interested students with the program.

Medical students who enroll in the joint program and also pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) will begin the law school portion of their studies in the fall of 2013.

Speaking frankly, White said the rigorous dual program, which is designed to prepare physicians for careers in health sector law, leadership and policy, or running a private medical or group practice, is not for everyone.

“It would take a certain kind of person who would be able to undertake the intensity to have this done in six years,” White said. “But it also creates an extraordinarily well-educated person who would have an amazing complement of talent and would be able to do any number of things.”

White, who helped launch the dual degree program at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law when she was dean there, presented just such a person: Brian Wilhelmi, M.D., J.D. Now a Johns Hopkins anesthesiology resident, Wilhelmi was the first medical student to enroll in the dual program offered by Arizona State and Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota.

“He really understood both cultures – the cultures are interestingly different – but if you appreciate those differences, you can become of both,’’ White said. “It provides a unique set of options when you put the two skill sets and education together.’’

Intrigued by the new program, Wilhelmi joked that he needed a temporary escape “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 said he is pleased with 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 help influence health policy.

“This is not the beaten path,” he 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 apply for and 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 attendance were ready with questions for him, Dean White, Mechaber and two of the other architects of the joint program, Sandy Abraham, M.A., M.B.A., executive liaison for interdisciplinary programs and initiatives at the law school, 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 are available. Dual degree students will receive an annual $15,000 scholarship.

First-year Miller School student Noy Ashkenazy, who confessed she has never looked at an LSAT book, said the information “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, Ashkenazy’s classmate, said she had been eager to hear more since learning 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.”

Mechaber and White said more sessions would be announced to help answer the broad range of questions students will have. Yet, White acknowledged, enrollment will always be small.

“We think of it as a very special opportunity for a very special type of person,” she said.

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