Medical Students / JMOsPostgraduate / Specialties

Should you study a Masters of Public Health (MPH)?


Dr Tom Volkman is a paediatric registrar who has recently completed a Masters of Public Health (MPH). Here he shares his insights into studying an MPH while also working full time.

Walking out your last OSCE or written exam in medical school has to be one of the great feelings. Knowing you’ve done it, that’s it and nothing can stop you now………! If you’ve been lucky enough to feel that feeling then congratulations and if it’s still a while off, that day will come! It won’t be long after you throw that pointy hat in the air, that someone will say something along the lines of “you never stop learning” or “this is just the beginning”. It may shock you to hear that they’re right….

Some people join medicine to change the world, some to change a life, others to drive a flashy car and it won’t shock you to hear that you that Intern year may not always fulfill those dreams. Definitely not the car….. When you’re asking your mate to page you at an opportune time to get you out of an epically boring allied health meeting or writing your bodyweight in paperwork a day, it may seem like you got a bum deal. It can be easy to get lost in the mechanics of being a doctor! At those times it can be really important to reflect back on the reasons you got into the job in the first place.

For some people that is the love of the big picture and the idea they can make a lasting difference (which can seem a million miles away from a staff station with a leaning tower of discharge summaries!). You may even surprise yourself to hear that you might actually miss studying….. I certainly never thought I’d go back to uni after just leaving it but you can miss the learning process. There are lots of ways to add to your work life (and your CV) to set you apart and to develop your skills. One choice is public health, a masters of public health.

Why Public Health? Public health is the big picture and you can practice public health every day. Public health practitioners transform the world in ways that can affect every household, workplace, classroom, and community. You only have to watch the news to hear compelling reasons to study public health in today’s world: bioterrorism, obesity, declining vaccination rates and skepticism, global warming, health care costs, an ageing population and family violence. Practicing public health can be thinking holistically to make sense of some of the world’s sprawling complex problems.

Many people in medicine have hidden talents and backgrounds in other industries prior to study. It can be fulfilling to find a way to incorporate these extra skills into your medical life. Public health can bring together lots of other disciplines, including political science, logistics, law, social work, public relations and management. Learning more about some of these perspectives can change how you look at health and your place in the health system.

So what can you learn? You may have flashbacks to an attention challenging epidemiology lecture in your first years of medical school but there is more to it than that. There’s biostatistics too….. But also all sorts of electives to catch your interest. Indigenous Health, Addiction health, Defence health, Bioterrorism, Parasitology, International Aid Agencies, Health Promotion, Aeromedicine… the list goes on.
In my experience you can get winched into a helicopter, learn how to cook kangaroo traditionally, learn how to do a dive medical and work a hyperbaric chamber, vaccinate children in PNG and visit a snakebite clinic in Tanzania as part of your masters….. and learn some things too. It can also be a fantastic basis for working with major Aid organisations and some subjects are taught (and recommended) by the likes of MSF, Red Cross and the WHO.

So how long does it take?Most schools offer courses lasting 1.5 to 2 years full time. I started at the start of my second resident year and this is a perfect time to get your brain back in gear after your first hedonistic year as an Intern. If you ask around you’ll be surprised how many people are doing further study and its not hard to get a study group together.

How do you fit it in? Most universities allow you to take as many units a year as you wish (some people I know have taken 7 years to complete a masters)! Some Unis offer distance video learning, night courses, some offer miniblock units to cover a unit in 1-2 weeks with additional coursework and others old fashioned book based distance ed. The key is to kill lots of birds with the one stone. You focus your coursework to meet your hospital work and all of a sudden that dissertation of Rhuematic Heart disease works for grand rounds, medical student teaching AND masters coursework! It is possible to do and you’d be surprised how much study you can get done on a slow night shift or a midweek break from the Emergency Department. If you do your research you can take on more of the easy subject during more “quiet” rotations and less of the intense ones during your more intensive hospital rotations.

You also have a surprising amount of professional development and conference leave in most state award agreements and what better way to use that leave than to travel to East Africa or Papua New Guinea to study some tropical medicine?

How much does it cost? Almost all public health schools offer deferred supported places or up front payment. Where can you study? Basically anywhere, check your local unis website and you’ll probably find a school of public health. Well regarded courses are run by Usyd, JCU, Flinders, Monash, UQ and UWA to name but a few, but they exist in every state and territory just go looking!

So keep your mind open once you get out in the big wide medical world, opportunity is everywhere. You just have to look past the mountains of paperwork.