As a third year medical student, I was excited to finally be seeing patients. I was out of the lecture hall and into the hospital and clinic, ready and willing to take on the world. I quickly realized however my lack of familiarity with many of the social ills that were impacting my patients’ health – poverty, housing, education, legal issues – larger scale concepts that I had unfortunately had little exposure to during my prior education. I also began to have insight on the narrow nature of our clinical training in medical school. We learn the molecules and the physics, as well as the organs and the diseases, to the medical and surgical treatments – but very little about how to approach the patient’s interaction with our society and communities. A patient’s health and well-being are impacted on more than a purely physical or biological level; it is of no surprise that our psychological and emotional reaction to societal structures is a source of stress that impacts different organ systems and creates actual pathology. The question remains how much can or should a physician be familiar with these structures in order to help her/his patients. For me: I wanted more. I therefore did not hesitate to step away from medical school for my dual degree.
With an undergraduate education in public policy and an outright lack of interest in both bench and clinical research, I opted to take some time away from my clinical training to learn more about the law, our government structure, and the ways that I might serve as a better advocate. I do not regret the decision at all, even the additional three years that I was in school. Learning how to think analytically as a lawyer provides me now, as a practicing primary care physician, with insight that I believe is of value to my patients. In my law school education, I became familiar with policy surrounding a wide range of social topics including domestic violence, immigration, public benefits, public housing, and criminal law.
Admittedly, it’s not necessary to have my law degree to work with patients on some of these issues, especially considering I’m not actually practicing law in the traditional sense. But I hope to expand my career at one point in order to be more involved in policy-making circles and advocacy forums. Having both degrees allows me the flexibility to take my career in multiple directions. It also has provided me with the know-how to speak both “languages.” Within both medical and legal circles, there is definitely a skill to knowing how to communicate within each community – and by bridging that gap, I hope to influence more than just my patients but the actual structures that influence their health and their lives.
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