UM offers dual medical-legal degree program

Alexander Heydemann and Dillon Bannis, both University of Miami students — Heydemann in law school, Bannis in medical — are learning fast about each other’s worlds.

“As a medical student and future physician, a lot of time we get stuck in our own worlds, writing notes for ourselves and our colleagues. My time here, at the medical-legal partnership, has helped me see that the documentation I put into place has overarching reaches further than just the hospital,” Bannis says in a video presented by the school to detail its health/law Pathways program.

Pathways, which immerses students in both curricula, will lead to a dual medical-law degree program UM plans to offer in the fall. The pathways program is “a four-year longitudinal experience for medical students in law,” explains Jonel Newman, a clinical professor and director of the Health and Elder Law Clinic at the University of Miami. Medical and law students travel to the downtown Miami medical campus and Coral Gables campus to enmesh themselves in the study of both disciplines.

UM’s Miller School of Medicine and School of Law will then offer a joint M.D. and J.D. degree program that can be completed in six years, which shaves off a year’s time — and tuition — had the participants pursued each degree separately. Medical students who enroll in the joint program and also pass the Law School Admission test will begin the law school portion of their studies in the fall.

The rigorous dual program is designed to prepare students for careers in health sector law, leadership and policy, or to give tools to physicians who might wish to run a private medical or group practice.

“Many doctors graduate from medical school with not really being equipped to start their own practice to deal with and understand the billing, the insurance, some of the legal aspects. Other legal aspects of great interest to the medical field include bioethics, ethical decision making and exposure to health-related legal needs,” Newman said.

Heydemann, the budding attorney, has already seen the collaboration pay off — both personally and for the public he will one day serve regularly.

“I was real excited to get hands-on experience. The clinics at the law school offer a great opportunity to get great mentorship and experience early on,” Heydemann said. “One client was struggling with severe medical impairments and poverty, and I had to work closely with him to get to know his personal background and his story and hoped to finally get to the stage where he could become a legal permanent resident. That was rewarding and demanding at the very same time.”

Bannis recounts a similar experience.

“I met one of the patients one of the law students was working on and had the opportunity to tag along and add a little bit of my insight into the patient’s case. This gentleman was a veteran who had served his country in the Korean War and I helped him get benefits at the end and it was very rewarding,” Bannis said.

Traditionally, medical degrees provide entree to hospitals, urgent care centers and doctor’s offices while a law degree is the key to a courtroom, boardroom or local or federal government dais where policies are set and debated. But the two fields frequently intersect and overlap, to the point that medical and law schools will need to partner to offer such dual degree programs to train the next generation of medical and legal students so that they will have the skills to navigate the complex hallways of contemporary healthcare.

The Pathways immersion program, in place now with about seven students taking part, helps students determine if this dual role makes sense for them.

“One of the things the health pathway does is it helps lawyers and doctors break down the barriers between the two professions,” said Melissa Swain, Associate Director and Clinical Instructor, Health & Elder Law Clinic. “When they find out they have to work together one has a black jacket, one has a white jacket and they don’t want to talk to each other. By the end of the session, they are starting to work with each other and figuring out the different roles in their different professions and can work together on a case and tap into the strengths of both professions and make the case work better than if they were separate.”

Law students go weekly to Jackson Memorial Hospital or the Miami VA Healthcare System or University of Miami Hospital to see doctors in action, for example. “It’s a different setting than sitting in a law office,” Swain said. “They see the difference. Doctors running around all day, they don’t have office secretarial help. The doctor comes into the law office and, wow, it’s so quiet. They get to work in each others’ setting.”

Indeed, said Bannis. “Working at Jackson, we have patients with multiple legal as well as medical and surgical issues. My time at the medical school taught me to deal with medical surgical issues but didn’t do that good a job at teaching me legal issues. This helps in making these issues more tangible and we are able to attack those issues in comprehensive fashion.”

The coming UM dual program has its origins at Arizona State University under the direction of Dean Patricia White, who is now Dean of UM’s Law School. She is working on the program’s launch with law school colleague Sandy Abraham and Doctors Mark O’Connell and Alex J. Mechaber.

Last March, White and Mechaber, senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education and associate professor of medicine, hosted a session at the Miller School to detail the program for interested students. The pair drew more than 20 students, Swain said.

Call them the super achievers.

“There’s been tremendous interest and we can gauge that interest based on the health way pathway we’re offering,” Swain said.

“The students have impressed us as extraordinarily motivated and engaged, bright and analytical,” Newman added.

In a statement, White reflected on the complexity of the dual program. “It would take a certain kind of person who would be able to undertake the intensity to have this done in six years,” she said. “But it also creates an extraordinarily well-educated person who would have an amazing complement of talent and would be able to do any number of things.”

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