Quillen College of Medicine students can now simultaneously pursue master’s degree at ETSU College of Public Health
JOHNSON CITY – Students at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine can now simultaneously pursue a master’s degree from the ETSU College of Public Health in addition to their medical degree, a dual track designed to provide future physicians a broad perspective that could help solve health problems on a large scale.
The dual track, called the MD/MPH program, became available recently when the Tennessee Board of Regents approved a proposal by ETSU. Dr. Robert Pack, associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Public Health, said many physicians who pursue a master’s degree in public health do so with an eye toward a career broader than one that is centered on one-on-one patient care.
Pack worked with Dr. Ken Olive from the Quillen College of Medicine, faculty from both colleges and administrators at the university level to develop the dual track curriculum. Students who enter the program will pursue a master’s degree concentration through the ETSU College of Public Health while they are taking medical school courses. After their third year of medical school, students will devote one year to the master’s program in public health before returning for a final year at the College of Medicine.
“This is often an ideal choice for physicians who want to pursue a career in academic medicine or public health, or public health leadership at the local, state or federal level,” Pack said. “Physicians who are trained in public health can be very valuable to the public health infrastructure because they have the clinical training in addition to a broad, population-level perspective. This can lead to high-level, public health problem solving.”
Olive, who is executive associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at Quillen, agreed.
“Physicians who pursue a career in public health can make a big difference,” Olive said. “History shows us that you can save a lot more lives focusing on issues like safe drinking water than you can with a $10,000 drug.”
Previous students have pursued a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health at ETSU, though there was not a well-defined path to follow. “They were essentially figuring out the best course themselves, because we didn’t have an articulated agreement between the colleges,” Olive said.
Having an agreement in place will save students from repeating what is essentially the same coursework across colleges. Depending on the MPH concentration that the medical students select, the savings could be as much as 45 percent of the coursework and costs.
“One of the most important points of this new track is that there aren’t any new associated costs, and there is significant cost savings for the student,” Olive said. “I think this is going to be a very attractive track for competitive students, and it’s going to benefit the public health sector, too.”
Dr. Wilsie Bishop, ETSU vice president for health affairs and university chief operating officer, praised TBR’s approval of the new track.
“Our strength in the health sciences is one of the hallmarks of our university, and collaboration between the colleges only makes us stronger,” Bishop said. “We’re excited that ETSU medical students who have an interest in public health will now have an added reason to pursue a master’s degree.”
Dr. Michele Gourley is one of the students that Olive referenced as forging her own path to both degrees. Gourley was a medical student at Quillen who already had an interest in international medicine when she became intrigued with public health after hearing Dr. Randy Wykoff, the dean of the College of Public Health, speak at a campus event. Wykoff practiced as a pediatrician before he entered the realm of public health and worked at the federal level before coming to ETSU.
Gourley earned her medical degree from ETSU in 2009, as well as a master’s degree in public health with a community health concentration.
“In my second year of medical school I started thinking more about public health, started thinking that many issues – issues like obesity – can’t be addressed in a 15-minute clinic visit or even a short hospital stay,” Gourley said. “Any time you’re able to gain a broader perspective and apply that to issues of health or disease, it can only help the individuals and the communities that suffer from those problems and our health care system overall.”
As part of the field experience required for her master’s degree, Gourley spent three months in Honduras working with Predisan, a Christian medical missions organization that provides medical care for underserved people in the Central American country. She worked in several rural communities whose schools were participants in Predisan’s school-based health program and investigated a reported rise in malnutrition rates among children.
“I went through a process of examining their problem then working backwards to figure out the causes or factors that influenced that problem,” Gourley said. “I was able to apply what I learned in public health and medicine in an international setting to make a more sustained impact than in a one-on-one setting.”
Olive and Pack said the dual track has been discussed the past few years at ETSU, but the process accelerated in the past year. The ETSU College of Public Health is the only accredited school of public health in Tennessee.
“For this to happen, it took collaboration among several entities at the university,” Pack said. “It required the cooperation and leadership of people in the College of Medicine, the College of Public Health, the Office of the Provost and the School of Graduate Studies. It’s a good example of many different units at the university working well together toward one goal.”