Adding a Higher Education Option

Jan 12, 2015 at 04:21 pm by Staff

UCF College of Medicine begins joint MD-PhD degree program

LAKE NONA MEDICAL CITY -- Beginning this fall, the University of Central Florida (UCF) will offer a combined MD-PhD degree program for students seeking to focus their health careers on both patient care and medical research.

The trend of "physician-scientists" in MD-PhD programs began at top-tier medical schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Now, approximately 120 medical schools nationwide have established joint MD-PhD degree programs.

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) calls MD-PhD trainees "research scientists who solve mechanisms underlying disease, combined with their passion to treat patients in a clinical setting."

The joint degree program at UCF begins with the current first two years of the MD curriculum, followed by two to four years of intensive research training in the PhD program, including writing and defending a dissertation. Then, dual-degree program candidates begin two years of clerkship rotations at hospitals and clinics. Joint degree candidates will take courses in research and do lab rotations in place of the MD program's Focused Inquiry and Research Experience (FIRE). The two-year FIRE module requires all MD students to complete an independent research project to develop their skills and appreciation for medical research.

Students in joint programs generally earn their doctoral degrees in disciplines such as physiology, biomedical engineering, biochemistry and genetics. UCF's candidates will earn doctorates in biomedical sciences through the newly approved MD-PhD track in the existing Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences PhD Program.

The College of Medicine anticipates the first class will consist of students enrolled in UCF's MD and Biomedical Sciences PhD programs.

"This cohort of students will have the ability to bridge the gap between the lab bench and patient bedside," said Deborah German, MD, vice president of medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine. "The joint degree provides the professional training needed by a physician and the rigorous scientific training required of a scientist. These graduates will be able to identify the important questions of medicine and design experiments that will provide the answers."

In Florida, medical schools at the University of Florida, University of South Florida, and Miami offer an MD-PhD program.

Orlando Medical News spoke with German about details of the new MD-PhD program.

When did the idea emerge of the joint MD-PhD program?

A joint MD-PhD program has been a goal since the UCF College of Medicine was created. UCF's PhD in biomedical sciences began about 15 years ago. We (COM) needed to gain full accreditation and get the MD program grown and stabilized to begin a comprehensive and successful joint MD-PhD program.

What did it take to bring it to fruition?

A committee of medical education faculty and faculty from the college's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences has met for over a year led by Dr. Steven Ebert, associate professor in the Burnett School. The committee created the joint curriculum. The program had to be approved at the college level by the MD Curriculum Committee and the Graduate Education Curriculum Committee. It was then approved by UCF's Graduate Curriculum Committee. The plan also had to be approved by (Dean German), the director of the Burnett School and the dean of UCF's College of Graduate Programs. Final approval was given by the UCF Provost. This is the standard procedure for starting a new program at the university.

Could you give an idea of the cost and savings in cost or time of pursuing the joint program?

Joint program students will still pay the same amount in MD tuition, based on their residency and scholarship status. During the scientific portion of their training, students will get the same subsidies that PhD students in Biomedical Sciences receive - a monthly stipend as a graduate research or teaching assistant that covers living expenses and coverage of tuition and healthcare insurance. Support is contingent on the availability of funds that come from the College of Medicine and sponsored research grants. We've developed some efficiencies and decreased overlap in the combined program. For that reason, a student in UCF's MD-PhD program will complete the joint program in six to eight years. Seeking the two doctorates separately would likely take nine to 10 years.

How many UCF students are expected to participate in the joint program?

We anticipate one or two students a year in the joint program. There are two pathways to admission: New students can apply to the joint program after completing their undergraduate training. Students already enrolled in the UCF MD or PhD program can seek admission to the other. If the student is accepted, we begin the joint program at that time.

Short of taking a sabbatical, would it be feasible for practicing physicians to consider the joint program to complete their PhD?

No, and we really don't expect that. This program is very intensive in nature - six to eight years of science and medical training, two full-time programs. This isn't a part-time, study-while-you-continue-your-job program. We anticipate students who have a passion for science and clinical care will make the decision to pursue a joint degree as part of their existing educational plans.

How will the joint program help emerging medical students in the New Health Economy?

The joint program trains physician-scientists, people with a passion for clinical care who also have the training to do extensive research into the causes and treatments of disease. MD-PhDs across the country run their own research labs and participate in clinical and other trials while they care for patients. Many are also involved in medical education. They are truly "bench to bedside" healthcare professionals who have the scientific training to see how treatments work with their patients and how to make those treatments scientifically better. Their research training allows them to come up with better science to treat disease states they experience in the clinic and hospital. A PhD may know the science of a treatment, but doesn't have the opportunity to study how that treatment is translated and accepted in a clinical setting. An MD knows the symptoms and treatment plans for his patients but doesn't have the scientific training to create better treatments. The MD-PhD combines both worlds.

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