In what is likely to be a rigorous cross-disciplinary experience, the University of Pennsylvania will launch a program next year that would offer candidates a chance to earn degrees in law and medicine.
It will take students six years to complete, while a medical degree takes four years and a law degree three.
The program will be directed primarily at students pursuing medical careers, with the aim of helping future doctors gain skills that could prove valuable in parts of the field where the importance of legal knowledge is growing.
The program, said J. Larry Jameson, dean of Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, addresses "the emerging legal issues that accompany topics ranging from patient confidentiality in the era of big data and electronic medical records, to patenting and commercialization processes for new discoveries."
Penn's joins a small group of similar programs at major universities, including Stanford, Chicago, and Ohio State.
Candidates for the program would matriculate in both schools. They would spend the first two years at the medical school, the second two years studying law, the fifth year at the law school while also taking medical courses, and the sixth year solely at the medical school. Candidates would attend both commencements.
Officials said they did not know how many students would seek the joint degree. The medical school has about 800 students and the law school about 750.
Gail Morrison, Perelman's senior vice dean of education, said the program would also benefit students interested in social justice or humanitarian work. An understanding of international law, she said, would be useful for students interested in starting the nongovernment organizations that often focus on improving conditions in developing countries.
"The whole goal [of the program] is to make a student a doctor, but then a doctor who also has other skills that can be utilized as they move along in their careers," she said.
Taking on two demanding fields of study, medicine and law, at the same time is not rare. Penn has granted both degrees to candidates in the past. What the school's program does is add structure, making it easier for students to achieve their objectives.
Amanda Aronoff, director of cross-disciplinary programs at Penn Law School, said 75 percent of the university's law students and 65 percent of its medical students already graduate with some form of joint certificate or degree.
Erin Paquette, who graduated from Penn with medical and law degrees in 2007, said she was drawn to the degree combination because of her interest in using her medical expertise to advocate for vulnerable populations.
"The ability for me to understand the legal and regulatory framework that impacts patients in terms of their ability to access care, issues of social justice - I think the law degree really helped me to be a better advocate for my patients," said Paquette, a physician and instructor in critical care at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
In addition to teaching, Paquette also does policy work for Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago and other institutions, where her expertise in law comes in handy.
Aaron S. Kesselheim, who graduated from Penn with both degrees in 2002, said his pursuit of the combination was prompted by an interest in the legal structures at play in health policy.
"I wanted to get involved in helping improve the functioning of health-care delivery by focusing on its intersections with the law," said Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
He also runs a research group at Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard that focuses on how the connections between health-care delivery and legal regulation influence how treatment and prescriptions are delivered, and other aspects of medicine.