The unique degree program gives students an international perspective and enables them to earn both a doctorate of medicine and a master of public affairs in just four years.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A doctor can diagnose a patient and prescribe life-saving treatment only to find that that treatment is not covered by insurance, or may have a wealth of insight into how policies could provide better health outcomes for patients, but no experience navigating the system that institutes them.

A new dual-degree program at Brown University aims to train students in both medicine and health care policy and create the next generation of leaders in those intersecting fields. Students who complete the four-year program will earn both a doctorate of medicine (MD) and a master of public affairs (MPA).

“This degree program was developed knowing what knowledge and skills students will need if they want to effect change in health care moving forward,” said Dr. Paul George, assistant dean of medical education at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. “It is important for us that students have an idea of what shapes health policy and gain practical experience in this arena, so that they will be facile in promoting health policy changes during their careers.”

This is the first integrated program of its kind in the U.S., in which students are able to complete their degrees in four years and take courses taught by both medical school and public policy faculty. Other institutions offer five- or six-year joint programs and sometimes require students to apply to a master of public affairs program only after their course of medical study is underway. At Brown, the degrees are integrated from the start.

“One of the first decisions we made in regard to the MD/MPA program was to have the two degree programs be integrated,” George said. “We felt as though it would allow students to learn medicine, but at the same time, learn about the policies that shape medicine.”

Students will be able to “see patients, identify issues directly related to health policy and then learn about those issues with the patient’s context in mind,” he added.  In addition, George said, the design of the program enables a cross-disciplinary approach as students encounter issues related to health policy in clinical settings. They can “look at these issues with different frames in mind — the medical frame and the health policy frame,” he said.  

Students must be admitted to the Warren Alpert Medical School before opting for the dual-degree track, in which they study with faculty from Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The integrated MD/MPA program has a June start date, and the first cohort of dual-degree students will be enrolled in the summer of 2017.

James Morone, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, said, “This is an exciting program that reflects one of Brown’s great strengths — active collaboration across the campus. Everyone can see the need for policy-savvy health care leadership. There’s nothing else like this program. This is a terrific collaboration that will benefit and educate the students in both medicine and policy.”

In the first year, students take courses in health systems science and public organizations management. They also begin a four-year Policy in Action consultancy, spending a half-day per week in a leading health care system, foundation or non-governmental organization, shaping and implementing a project with a real-world client.

In subsequent years, students engage in a longitudinal clerkship with a mentor physician. They work with an assigned panel of about 30 patients, whom they follow to health care settings ranging from the operating room to primary care doctors’ and specialists’ offices.

By the third year, MD/MPA students gain global policy experience by spending 10 days in an international setting where they meet with elected officials, entrepreneurs and lawmakers to examine how policy is constructed. Past sites for these immersion programs have included Sweden, Brazil, India and Cambodia.

This international emphasis is unique to the Watson Institute’s MPA program, the only program in the country to integrate an international policy experience into the core curriculum.

“The delivery of health care is a fundamental public good, something that governments worldwide are expected to ensure through policy,” said Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute. “So too, of course, does health care delivery rely on cutting-edge medical skills and state-of-the-art knowledge about the interaction of disease and populations.

“Our joint MD/MPA program reflects the basic fact that to do health care well, decision makers must bridge traditional divides between the social sciences, the sciences and the humanities,” Steinfeld added.  “That only Brown today offers a program like this reflects the University’s fantastic strengths in interdisciplinary scholarship, education and public outreach.”

Crossing traditional academic boundaries will provide graduates of the newly launched program a range of career choices. Asked what roles he envisions MD/MPA students taking on in their professional lives, George said, “I hope that graduates of this program continue seeing patients to some extent, as I think it is important to stay involved in clinical care as one is shaping health policy. That being said, my hope is that graduates of this program seek out opportunities to lead health policy change in government, generate innovative ideas in health policy think tanks, conduct research in academia or as act as key consultants to those shaping health policy.”