In this issue’s Trainee & Early-Career section, Dr. Melissa Loh shares thoughtful, practical advice for oncology fellows thinking about pursuing a second degree while completing fellowship. New learning and knowledge is empowering and exciting. Whether you are considering an MBA, MPH, or JD, another advanced degree will open professional doors, inspire new avenues of research, and foster relationships with new colleagues who are thrilled to connect with MDs. I highly recommend it—even if you are no longer a fellow.
I came to the University of Virginia in 2008 to be the Gynecologic Oncology fellowship director. Our fellowship program is 3 years; the first year is the research year. In our fellowship, the fellows are allowed to choose a master’s degree in public health (MPH) in their first year or the lab for basic research.
At the time that I joined the Gynecologic Oncology division, none of the gyn onc faculty had an MPH. There were mentors for my fellows in the Public Health Sciences division, but I couldn't serve as a mentor for them or advise regarding their research.
So I decided to get my MPH.
I was 70% clinical at the time, so a full-time MPH wasn't going to happen. I did my degree one class per semester (it took me 6 years). There were some classes that I could attend only every other session, because of my OR or clinic responsibilities, and most of the time I was the oldest person in the class. But the experience was eye-opening. I learned a lot about things I had never thought about before. Like social determinants of health and how they impact health care delivery and acceptance of health care by communities. Like the Affordable Care Act (which was just being enacted) and its intricacies. I learned Lean and Six Sigma methods for approaching health care and making health care more efficient, and advanced epidemiology and statistical techniques. I took a fascinating class at the UVA law school about allocating health resources.
My thesis was a Lean analysis of the flow in my clinic—a prospective project that I published and that improved the care for my patients in my clinic environment.
The MPH opened many doors for me. First, it shifted my research focus. It allowed me to function as the principal investigator and mentor for quality-improvement projects for my fellows (now required by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education) and it also allowed me to pursue a grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality regarding decreasing readmission rates for women with ovarian cancer. I am pursuing research in disparities in access to clinical trials in rural Virginia, I am mentoring studies regarding HPV vaccination uptake, and I am assisting in survey studies regarding patient acceptance of clinical trials. The MPH was crucial for all of these projects.
So consider an advanced degree program: step out of your comfort zone, learn something new. Learning is something that we all need to do throughout life to keep us and our careers fresh and yes—to combat burnout. I would recommend pursuing an MPH degree to anyone who is at all interested in health policy (we all should be!), including issues such as changing health care in this country, epidemiology, vaccine research, cancer screening, and disparities in health care.
In fact, disparities are the focus of this issue’s cover story, which illuminates cancer care access challenges faced by LGBT patients. Earlier this year, an ASCO statement laid out recommendations for ensuring that this population receives the best possible whole-person care during their cancer treatment and survivorship. Together, we can all work to achieve greater health equity for every patient with cancer.