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Understanding M.D.-J.D. Degrees

Combined M.D.-J.D. programs allow students to earn medical and juris doctor degrees at the same time, providing knowledge and skills that equip them for numerous professional roles.

Except for accelerated programs, law school typically takes three years for full-time students to complete, while medical school takes four. Although combined J.D.-M.D. programs typically take six years, students get a full education at both schools, with some credits transferring from one to the other.

Both degrees are granted by the same school in dual-degree programs, while joint-degree programs involve two different partnering institutions.

“It’s a very powerful degree combination,” says Susan M. Wolf, an endowed professor who teaches courses in the dual-degree program at the University of Minnesota medical and law schools. “It cuts time and it cuts cost. And it’s important when students are considering doing both degrees that they’re really motivated to do both degrees. Neither of these degrees is a walk in the park.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges doesn’t have an exhaustive list of combined M.D.-J.D. programs, but notes that 20 schools currently report having one, via the association’s Medical School Admission Requirements online database. The number doesn’t include schools with informal or unofficial routes that allow students to earn both degrees.

Cost of Combined M.D.-J.D. Degrees

Acceptance into a combined program requires application and admission to both schools.

“The first part you have to consider is the financial implication,” says Dr. Susan Patricia Raine, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and director of the school’s joint M.D.-J.D. program with the University of Houston Law Center.

“That’s more years of tuition that you’re going to be paying, so you have to consider, ‘What are my financial circumstances at this point?’ and ‘What are the financial implications of pursuing this?’ As you consider the financial ramifications, you will have to decide if you can recoup that cost with your future earning potential. You’re delaying your career and your future earning potential by years.”

Costs vary by institution. The current average total cost of a U.S. law school education is about $206,000, while the average total cost of a U.S. medical school education is about $230,000, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Students sometimes receive tuition waivers and stipends, and they typically seek other sources of funding such as loans.

What to Expect in Combined M.D-J.D. Programs

Courses are the same as if the degrees were pursued separately, ranging from contracts and legal methods in law school to biology and other science courses with labs in med school.

Students in combined programs usually begin medical school first and then alternate between the two schools. Formats vary by program. For example, in the Baylor-University of Houston joint program, students do two years of medical school, the next two years at law school, the fifth year at med school and the sixth year finishing both programs.

Some elective courses typically count for credit toward graduation at both schools, which is a reason combined programs shave a year off the education. In the University of Minnesota’s dual-degree program, students can count up to 12 credits of med courses toward completion of their law degree.

In combined M.D.-J.D. programs, law professors typically teach legal courses in the medical school through joint appointments.

“If your impulse is M.D.-J.D., it’s telling you that you are a unique individual and you should pursue a unique path,” he says. “That may or may not be an M.D-J.D. combination.”

Sage earned medical and law degrees in 1988, but not in an official combined program. While a student at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, he designed his own dual program, attending the university’s law school before doing a medical residency.

“There are different ways to go about it,” he says. “I think it’s something you do because you sense that you want to have a flexible engagement with issues of health care, health policy, bioethics.”

What to Consider Before Pursuing a Combined M.D.-J.D. Degree

Earning a medical or law degree is highly demanding, so students planning to tackle both should be prepared, experts say.

Motivation is important, but “the first thing you need is clarity about why you want to do it and how you want to use this degree combination,” Wolf says.

And don’t question whether you’re smart enough to obtain both degrees, Raine advises.

“It’s more of a matter of you can do it, you just have to commit to doing it,” she says. “And it’s a big commitment. You must learn to think differently, and it’s exciting and rewarding. You just have to have genuine drive to want to accomplish these disparate degrees. Work ethic matters more than raw intelligence.”

You also should know up front whether you want to primarily practice law or medicine, she says, “because that’s going to guide what the career path looks like.”

Dual-degree holders tend to gravitate toward the medical side, observers say. Those who intend to pursue a medical-related career “should consult with faculty, make sure they really want to do this degree combination, and try to consult with somebody who really is an M.D. about their experiences, although experiences vary,” Wolf says. “It’s really important to establish mentors. You want to have the support, advice and vision of people who work at the intersection of law and medicine.”

Faculty and others advising those considering the combined degree should ask probing questions, Wolf adds: “Talk to them about why. Do they really need both? Are they really motivated to do both? Do they really understand the rigors of doing both?”

Those who want to complete a residency program and practice medicine should consider whether a particular residency would directly relate to the expertise they would gain in law school, Raine says.

“Think about your ultimate career goals, if you know them,” she says. “It’s OK if you don’t yet know them. Starting in such a program doesn’t mean you’re committed to entering the law school part. You can take the LSAT and apply to law school in the second year of medical school or early third year, which gives you time to decide.”

A desire to affect clinical practice at a policy level motivated Sage to obtain both degrees.

“It suited my engagement with public policy, with health, with social change,” he says. “It’s been very important for me to understand the roles of ethics in professional and nonprofessional endeavors. It’s been a nice identity for me as a physician, a lawyer and a teacher. It’s really interesting to see your own profession through another profession’s eyes.”

After deciding to pursue a combined M.D.-J.D. program, choosing the right one is critical, experts say.

“It’s a long haul,” Wolf warns. “I tell prospective students that if you do this, you ideally want to go to a university that is friendly to this, that is set up for this, and (where) there are supportive faculty members. And potentially, faculty members that you could do research with, whether it’s legal research or policy research or bioethics research. You should go to a welcoming environment that understands this degree combination and is ready to support it.”

Career Paths for M.D.-J.D. Degree Recipients

Academia, hospital administration, government and public policy are among fields where professionals with J.D. and M.D. degrees often work. Some become forensic pathologists, in-house counsel at biotechnology research firms, or go into medical malpractice litigation, food and drug law, medical ethics or intellectual property law that involves medical devices.

Having the two degrees “offers you flexibility and careers not open to everyone,” Raine says. “So if you decide to leave one field for burnout or a changing life situation, it affords you options not open to professionals with a single graduate degree.”

As an academic, Sage focuses on the ethical and principle issues of health care related to system improvement, value and efficiency, equity and access, and biomedical innovation.

“People will consider you with that degree combination for almost anything involving health, health care, bioscience,” he says. “The combination opens both external doors and internal doors. Sometimes you don’t know what career path you will have until you are on it.”

It’s been a career path with many turns for Dr. David Orentlicher, who earned an M.D. from Harvard Medical School before obtaining a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has provided Congressional testimony, done scholarship cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, directed the American Medical Association’s Division of Medical Ethics – drafting the AMA’s first bill of rights for patients – and served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 2002 to 2008.

Orentlicher currently serves in the Nevada Assembly, is an endowed professor at the University of Nevada—Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law and directs UNLV’s Health Law Program.

“During my career, there has been tremendous growth in the interplay between law and medicine, and that has created an ever increasing need for professionals who understand how health care is delivered and how the law can be used to improve public policy,” Orentlicher wrote in an email. “I have found that my clinical experience as a doctor helps me translate legal principles into reforms that will be effective in practice.”

He stresses the importance of combined-program students deciding early whether they will pursue a career primarily in law or medicine, and whether they “can gain sufficient exposure to the other field without earning a degree.”

Dr. Fatima Syed, who completed the Baylor-University of Houston program in 2020, sought the joint degree because she is passionate about patient advocacy and thought a law degree would help her understand how policy could affect her future medical practice.

Syed says she appreciated the education, but now realizes that a law degree wasn’t essential to learning how health care, law and policy advocacy intersect. That awareness has come during her OB-GYN residency as she has seen her physician mentors advocate strongly for patients and influence policy.

“Before, I had felt that to be an effective advocate in the policy realm for patients, I needed a very in-depth understanding of how policy-related processes are,” she says. “But I think that a big part of the value that physicians bring to the conversation of health care policy comes from day-to-day interactions in patient care. I realized that you don’t need another degree if your goal is to be involved in patient advocacy and health policy-related advocacy. What you will offer is what you get through your practice as a physician.”

Source: US News