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Health Policy Beyond Healthcare Policy: Lessons from a Dual Degree

A few weekends ago, I, a medical student interested in ob/gyn and domestic health disparities, was the French representative to the (mock) United Nations at a summit on climate refugees. It was, in a word, unexpected. How had I found myself addressing the UN General Assembly? While the specifics of that January morning are still a bit confusing, it happened because this summer I decided to pursue a dual degree in Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School. A bit of an unexpected detour to my medical education.

Last spring, as COVID-19 descended on Ann Arbor, I witnessed the stories of this pandemic. On phone calls to tell patients about the transition to hybrid virtual prenatal care, pregnant patients told me of empty grocery stores, dissolving support networks, and job loss. As the pandemic worsened, it became clear that there was differential impact. Health disparities that had once felt abstract were suddenly in sharp focus and the medical community could not look away.

As a former social worker I am good at identifying problems, and as a medical student I am good at identifying the consequences of those problems. But I didn’t have the tools to address the issues these pregnant patients were facing: a disorganized food distribution network, loss of neighborhood cohesion, an economy in freefall. It was not news that these variables affect health, but what was less clear to me was what I could do about it. Carrying these patient stories, I decided to enroll at the Ford School of Public Policy because, as COVID-19 made clear, health starts outside the hospital.

Every day at Ford, we explore the biggest problems affecting our world. In fact, today alone I discussed optimal public insurance payment levels, affordable housing tax breaks, and privacy rights. I most appreciate the opportunity to go deep into complex problems. Some of my work has clearly been about health: I’ve explored the ethics of cost-benefit analysis of family planning programs, evaluated the ways trade policy affected the domestic supply of medical masks, and examined why the Affordable Care Act did not dissolve when the insurance mandate was nullified. But it isn’t health policy I’m interested in. The primary reason I came to Ford is to understand the scaffolding that supports my patients and shapes their lives. This year, I’ve written policy proposals for unemployment insurance, a campaign plan focused on childcare deserts (“no American family should need to make 1950s choices in a 21st century economy!”), and conducted an analysis of election day operations in Detroit. After all, more generous unemployment insurance keeps workers healthy, safe childcare helps stabilize families, and analyzing elections taught me about how complex systems, like hospitals, succeed and fail.

Complex problems require multi-tiered solutions, and while physicians and social workers are indispensable to any solution, so too are policymakers and community advocates who shape the communities our patients live in. The opportunity to pursue both ends of this continuum has been inspiring.

Dual Degree MD: Pursuing an MBA in the UK

In between my M3 and M4 years, I pursued an MBA at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. While obtaining a dual degree at the University of Michigan Medical School is relatively common, running halfway around the world to do so is not. I went through a mix of emotions as I left Ann Arbor to travel to Cambridge, including excitement, fear, and curiosity. I was excited to open up this brand-new chapter of my life in a totally different country at one of the world’s most famous universities. I understood that I would be attending the same institution where individuals such as Newton, Darwin, Hawking, and Mandela (only to name a few) made their mark on humanity. Yet, I was afraid to leave everything and everyone that I knew back in the USA. Suddenly, I would be in a long-distance relationship, six time zones apart from my family, and immersed in a professional and cultural world completely foreign to me. Fortunately, a medical student in the year above me (Steph DeBolle) trailblazed the path for me at Cambridge, but nevertheless, I knew that it would be me and me alone out there for a full year.

On my first day of school, I felt like a Kindergartner starting fifth grade. Prior to business school, I hadn’t even opened up a corporate finance book, and now, I would be in the same classroom as people who oversaw eight-figure transactions at organizations such as Apple, LVMH, and Alibaba. Moreover, as the second youngest person in my class, I felt as if my experience (or lack thereof) could not possibly contribute to the overall diversity of the class. I mean, one of my classmates was an Emmy Award-winning director—come on!!! Nevertheless, I knew that by the program’s completion, I wanted to obtain the strategic toolkit necessary to streamline adequate health care delivery for low-income individuals.

After getting into the stream of things, I began to realize that the business school at Cambridge was a ton of fun. I mean a TON of fun. Cambridge is a unique place. Not only is the city itself breathtakingly beautiful with over a thousand years of heritage, but it also sits just 48 minutes away from the heartbeat of Central London. Therefore, I not only lived in a picturesque city surrounded by the glorious English countryside, but I also had easy access to one of the world’s most buzzing and sought-after cities. My classmates quickly became my friends, and through working alongside them on projects as diverse as innovation benchmarking to pharmaceutical market expansion, they taught me a wide range of skill sets that I would have most likely never learned while in medical school. Additionally, since over 90% of my class was from outside of the UK, my friendship circle became rich in both national and professional diversity.

Crowd surfing at a Coachella themed party in Paris, France.

One of my favorite parts about the University of Cambridge is the college system. The university itself is made up of 31 different colleges that are sort of like Houses in Harry Potter. Each college has a campus, where conference rooms, bars, and boathouses can be found. I was part of St. Catharine’s College, a historic college housed in the center of the city. While at Catz, I played on the football team, where I was continuously ridiculed for calling the game soccer.

However, my sports involvement was not just limited to Catz football. One of the highlights of the MBA was MBAT, a European athletic competition held each year in Paris, France. Imagine something like this: what if all of the universities in the Midwest, such as Michigan State, Northwestern, OSU, and others, each participated in a giant three-day sports tournament that capped every night a massive themed party. Now imagine that this tournament was full of super fun with athletic individuals from all over the world and housed in Paris. That was MBAT. There, I played soccer, basketball, dodgeball, and touch rugby. To say it was a blast is a massive understatement.

With my Global Consulting Team in Beijing, China.

Throughout the course of my MBA, I participated in projects that took me as far as Bangkok and Beijing and as near as East London and Ipswich. I helped organize a conference that featured the former President of South Africa and I met the former CEO of ICBC. I skied in the Swiss Alps and swam in the Albanian Mediterranean. My friends are currently working for Amazon, Google, and Shell, and they live in cities like Tokyo, São Paulo, and Singapore.

Out at the main Souk in Doha, Qatar.

For me, pursuing an MBA at Cambridge was nothing short of remarkable and as a future physician, I plan to translate my business background into equitable health care delivery for low-income patients. Moreover, if I ever choose to partake in global medicine, the world will now be much easier to access due to my personal connections. For me, going to Cambridge made the most sense. Even though I had to temporarily leave everything behind, I certainly gained more than I could have ever imagined. I believe that no matter what you want to do while you are a medical student, a path for you exists. Whether it was pre-formed by someone else or completely off the beaten path, where there is a will, there is a way. Therefore, I say go for it!