3 Public Health Courses Premeds Should Take

By Ali Lotfi, M.D., Contributor


Gaining experience in public health education is important before you enter medical school.(GETTY IMAGES)

PUBLIC HEALTH IS becoming a more popular major among undergraduate students, and dual M.D.-M.P.H. degree candidates are on the rise in the U.S. Nevertheless, the great majority of medical school students still complete their education with little or no exposure to public health.

Not every aspiring physician should obtain a degree in public health, but a basic understanding of key public health topics is valuable for those who intend to practice as medical doctors. The premedical years provide students with greater time and flexibility than medical school or residency to develop a foundational understanding in public health.

Much of public health education is learning how to think systematically about large-scale health problems. Developing this framework early in your educational journey affords you ample time to build on it when you enter medical school.

Knowledge in three specific disciplines within public health is highly recommended for premed students:

  • Epidemiology.
  • Health policy.
  • Health management.

Epidemiology. Med school curricula almost always include some teaching in epidemiology during the first year. However, the amount taught is fairly limited.

A course in epidemiology can provide undergraduate students with background in how clinical and population level studies are designed. Some of our students who took this course as undergraduates even found that the critical thinking abilities they gained from the course helped them on the MCAT.

Those who know epidemiology well can read the medical and public health literature with a more critical eye. In med school, students are frequently expected to review clinical studies to find answers to questions about risk factors or the effectiveness of treatments for different conditions. Individuals with epidemiology knowledge can better navigate the medical literature and make sense of research findings.

Beyond med school, the ability to understand published clinical research is valuable in everyday practice because it allows physicians to read the most up-to-date studies within their field and provide patients with care that is based on the latest evidence.

Health policy. Governments play a big role in the delivery of health care all around the world, and the U.S. is no exception. In the U.S., government policies have far-reaching implications for health care. These policies can influence government-based health insurance programs like Medicare, as well as private health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry.

The effects of these policies can be seen in everyday clinical practice, such as when a physician has to prescribe a medication that is covered by the patient’s health insurance as opposed to an alternative drug that is not covered.

Furthermore, in today’s evolving health care system where there is extensive debate around health care reform, we need more physicians who are well-versed in policy to contribute to this dialogue, bridging the gap between what happens at patient bedsides with what goes on in political chambers.

As a result, physicians should have a good theoretical and practical understanding of health policy. The premed years are ideal for beginning to establish this foundation. Understanding how health care legislation is designed, what impact it has on health and how that impact is measured can be very valuable for incoming med students.

Armed with this knowledge, med students can enter their clinical rotations capable of making connections between their background in policy and what they see in the wards. They will be able to think more critically about how policies have an impact on the lives of their patients.

In addition, they can become involved in advocacy as students or as future physicians, serving as a voice for the medical community and for patient populations.

Finally, it is worth noting that medical schools ask applicants questions with policy relevance in the secondary application and in the interview. Having knowledge of issues related to health policy could help students better navigate such questions.

Health management. With the changes taking place in our health care system, physicians of the future have to possess strong leadership and management skills more than ever.

The majority of students entering the medical profession in this decade will likely end up practicing medicine in large group settings. They will have to work closely with midlevel providers such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners. They will also collaborate regularly with other specialists to provide patients with comprehensive care. To do this, it is helpful for med students to understand what effective management means in the context of health care.

Medical schools consider strong skills in leadership and management as a plus in an applicant. The skills gained from such courses can help you work better in teams and collaborate with others.

Undergraduate students who have gained this knowledge can enter med school better prepared to take on leadership roles as students or as future physicians, making contributions to policy, participating in advocacy or directing research projects.

It may seem a lot to add elective courses in public health to an already rigorous premed curriculum. However, time put into this is a long-term investment that could pay off as you begin to learn about the practice of medicine. It may also impress medical school admissions committees and increase the chances that they offer you a coveted spot in their incoming class.

By School of Public Health Office of Career Services
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