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Alyson Rockhold PA-C, MPH

I stood in the Museum of Modern Art, mesmerized by Monet’s water lilies. I leaned in to inspect the precision and artfulness of each tiny brushstroke, then I stepped back to appreciate the beauty of all of those small spots of color working in unison. 

I moved closer and then farther away, unsure which view I found more inspiring. As I swayed back and forth, it hit me: This is why I got a dual degree in both physician assistant (PA) studies and a master’s of public health (MPH).

As a PA, I deal with disease one person at a time. Like the brushstrokes, each individual is important and deserves close inspection and thoughtful placement. Public health gives a wider perspective; letting me evaluate health on a larger scale and plan interventions that improve the health of entire communities! 

And so my career has been a dance between leaning in to treat patients one-on-one in an exam room and then stepping back to evaluate the problem on a bigger scale.

I loved how these two degree plans were woven together in my dual degree program. In the morning, I leaned in to learn physical exam techniques, diagnosis, and treatment plans for diabetes and hypertension. Then, in the afternoon, I stepped back to study interventions that target the obesity epidemic, a root cause of those same disease states.

In the 10 years since I graduated with my double master’s, I have reaped the benefit of their combination time and time again. When I’ve interviewed for clinical positions, I’ve seen the hiring physician’s eyebrows lift in surprise when I casually mention my public health master’s. I have no doubt that my extra schooling put me ahead of other applicants.

Once I got those clinical jobs, I became even better at dancing between the two degrees. My PA training was at the forefront, helping me to make correct diagnoses and treatment plans. But I also relied heavily on my public health knowledge and the wide lens perspective it equipped me with. I tried to include patient education and tips for preventative health with every prescription I wrote. 

One of my goals after PA school was to use my training to work in developing countries. The combination of a physician assistant certification and a public health master’s opened the door for me to work in a malnutrition clinic in Haiti, run the women’s ward in a hospital in Zambia, and volunteer at an HIV  program in Tanzania. 

Yet, a dual PA/MPH degree is not for everyone, and I’d be lying if I didn’t share its downside.

I graduated from my dual degree program alongside nine other amazing people. It’s been inspiring to see how they each have gone on to impact the world in exciting and innovative ways. However, many of us suffer from what I call the “PA and” disease. For example, one friend is a PA and manages a crisis pregnancy center, another is a PA and runs a support network for healthcare workers, and I am a PA and freelance writer. 

One of the symptoms of the “PA and” disease is that we are not quite satisfied with clinical jobs. We may love medicine and the challenge of diagnosing and treating patients, but our public health passions cannot be stifled. So we find creative ways to keep serving our community.

There have been times when my “PA and” disease has gotten so severe that I’m tempted to leave medicine altogether. I wondered what it would be like to be a public health worker with a PA license on the side instead of the other way around. But I know I’d miss the challenges and rewards of clinical medicine after a while. Plus, the truth is that public health jobs are less than half the salary of most PA positions. (We can explore what that says about the healthcare priorities of our country at another time!) 

Thankfully, there is a cure for “PA and” disease. First, I focus on my deep gratitude for the opportunity, time, and funding to get two master’s degrees. Reaching this level of education is a privilege. Second, I’ve learned to find beauty in the dance between my public health passions and my physician assistant practice. Even if my day-to-day clinical work pulls me in to focus on one person at a time, I periodically step back and take that wider, public health perspective.

The PA/MPH dance may be challenging at times, but after 10 years, I couldn’t imagine my career any other way. I know that a dual degree was the best choice for me. How about you?