Medical students who have considered becoming lawyers can combine careers in medicine and law through the Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston Law Center’s dual M.D. / J.D. program, which allows students to graduate from medical and law school in six years.
Ton La Jr. is one of the few students involved in the dual-degree program at Baylor and the University of Houston. He currently is studying at the law center, but will return to complete his fourth year of medical school and apply for residency after he graduates law school. His experience in the program highlights the similarities between the two practices, and how studying law has given him a different outlook on medicine.
“The main reason why I am doing both is because you’re helping people who are in need,” La said. “For medicine, it’s quite obvious that you’re helping people because patients come in for health problems, but you are also helping people in law. It may not be as urgent but the effect you make on a client can be just as significant. Both have countless specializations that you can use to shape your practice. I honestly believe there are more similarities than there are differences between the two.”
One of the aspects La appreciates about law school is how it has strengthened his analytical skills and has taught him how to tackle complex situations in a medical setting. He said it also has given him a greater understanding of medical ethics and how to be aware of legal issues that could arise in a hospital. His knowledge of the legal side of medicine has given him an interest in working as a part-time professor teaching about health policy and medical ethics.
“I would like to teach more about legal issues that are unknown to medical students and what they should know before starting residency,” La said. “Medical students and residents don’t receive much training in healthcare policy, malpractice and important topics such as basic contract law, licensure and business transactions.”
La said his time in law school has allowed him to discover what he is passionate about, and what medical specialty he wants to pursue.
“You have to decide on a specialty after three years of medical school, and that can be quite daunting, especially if you’re interested in many things,” La said. “When I started law school I had already gone through my medical rotations, and I asked myself which specialty I could see myself in down the road. After being taught in law school how to be analytical and look closely at everything, I chose internal medicine because it involves the whole human body and every single organ system. You really have to care for the whole patient because everything is related, from the medications to the medical history and family history. It’s a wonderful field and there is always a new challenge every day.”
La hopes to practice internal medicine in Houston at either Ben Taub or the VA Medical Center after he graduates from Baylor. He plans to continue his legal education in a hospital setting, such as working for a hospital’s in-house legal team, in health policy or become a part of a medical ethics council.
“I think having the background in both medicine and law gives me personally a unique approach to legal and medical issues, and I would like to share that knowledge with physicians, students and residents,” La said.
La will gain experience working as an extern at the MD Anderson Cancer Center Legal Services Department this summer. He is on the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Student Association, and is finishing his two-year term as the student editor of AMSA’s The New Physician magazine. Founded in 1950, AMSA is the oldest and largest independent association of over 30,000 physicians-in-training in the United States. La also is a guest writer for KevinMD.com.
The M.D. / J.D. degree is a nationwide program established at several colleges. Dr. Susan Raine, the director of the M.D. / J.D. program at Baylor, said historically students who achieve the dual degree tend to practice law, but at Baylor there has been more participation on the medical side. She said the program works best for students who are interested in executing health policies or working in hospital administration.
“What I am seeing from our students is that they want to stay on the medicine side, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to practice medicine as their primary role,” Raine said. “They usually want be involved in either the health policy arena or in hospital administration.”
Raine meets with the students prior to them deciding to attend law school and goes over their career goals and asks them how they believe a law degree would support their career path.
“What’s interesting about the program is that it is definitely not the right choice for everyone,” Raine said. “We’re always going to have fewer students than the M.D. / Ph.D. or M.D. / M.P.H. programs. We will always be the smallest dual degree-program – even smaller than M.D / M.B.A. program – and that’s actually appropriate. It’s a much more defined niche.”
Raine said there has only been one graduate from the program so far, and the next one will be graduating in May. The program takes one to two students per academic year.
Along with being the program director and an obstetrician/gynecologist at Baylor, Raine also holds a law degree from the University of Texas School Of Law. “My J.D. skills have given me a different perspective on medicine,” Raine said. “The program is looking for students who want to contribute and work in medicine but in a very unique way.”
Students who are interested in the J.D. / M.D. program must apply and be accepted to Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston Law Center separately. Most students who are accepted into the program will apply to law school during their first or second year of medical school.
-By Kaylee Dusang