The E-News site has been inactive since February 2011 and may contain outdated information and/or broken links. For current and up-to-date Tufts news and information, please visit Tufts Now at
Tufts University e-news

Search  GO >

this site people
Tufts University Logo Bottom Search Bottom  
left side photo

A 'Toolbox' for Social Change

A 'Toolbox' for Social ChangeThe joint JD/MPH program at Tufts School of Medicine and Northeastern University School of Law equips students to better advocate for public health concerns.

Boston [01.30.09] Returning from her second hospital trip of the week, a mother of three immediately begins scanning her apartment for the inevitable pest droppings that have been causing her oldest child's frequent asthmatic episodes. She calls the landlord once more to discuss the issue and again is met by resistance and empty promises.

Enter Cristina Freitas, then a second-year student in the dual-degree juris doctor and master of public health (JD/MPH) program at Tufts and Northeastern University in Boston. She is completing her internship with the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children (MLPC) in Boston. Upon a referral from the child's clinician, Freitas, backed by the MLPC, helps the mother see progress she never imagined.

"We sent the landlord a letter on MLPC letterhead, which got her attention and landed us a phone call," Freitas recalls. "We discussed the law and the letter and compelled her to make a trip with an exterminator to the apartment where she then did a walk through with the mother, citing problem areas and strategies. Within a few weeks the problem was resolved and the child has not returned to the clinic in over a year."

"There are a number of legal issues out there that are often best solved by someone with public health training," says Marcia Boumil, associate professor of public health and family medicine at Tufts School of Medicine and director of Tufts' component of the JD/MPH program."[On the flipside,] for those in public health, some of us have long felt that the people who make things happen in public health are the lawyers."

Freitas, along with her twin sister Debbie and fellow JD/MPH program student Katherine Scarborough, won second place in the National Health Law Moot Court competition last December. The team members were judged on legal briefs and oral arguments presented to a panel of judges about a fictitious case that explored whether or not it was constitutional to allow a hospital to cease life-sustaining treatment for an elderly patient against the patient's and the family's wishes. Each student won a $750 scholarship.

With a background in science from her undergraduate career and experience as an EMT, Freitas, currently in her third year of the program, says she was eager to integrate those skills with her goal of becoming a lawyer.

"The JD/MPH program allows me to practice legal skills in a setting that really makes a difference," Freitas says. "MPH students tend to see things differently, looking at how something affects an entire population, not just an individual person."

For Scarborough, applying to the JD/MPH program was a personal decision prompted by a series of family hardships that included her father becoming ill, her family going bankrupt and eventually the loss of her childhood home.

"My family made it through, but it wasn't easy, and a lot of it was simply a matter of luck," Scarborough says. "That experience impressed on me the critical importance of having programs and policies in place to ensure the health and well-being of families, because frankly, a person or a family's physical and emotional well-being shouldn't depend on luck."

Scarborough adds, "A person's health and well-being is, in my view, the most central of human rights."

The JD/MPH program is just one of a number of dual-degree paths offered under the medical school's Department of Public Health and Family Medicine. Started in 2000, the program was first conceived by retired Tufts Professor James Hyde and Northeastern School of Law Professor Richard Daynard. Along with then-Department Chair Dr. Anthony Robbins and Northeastern Professor Wendy Parmet, the two saw value in the combined background after having worked together on the public health and legal issues in the tobacco industry.

While JD/MPH programs are popular at universities that have both law and medical schools, partnerships such as the one between Tufts and Northeastern are not unheard of. Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, for instance, share a similar program.

Over the past nine years the program has seen significant growth in its student population. In its first year, Boumil says their goal was to enroll five students. Now Tufts enrolls up to12 students into the program each year.

Students enrolled in the three-and-a-half-year program start their first year at Northeastern.Generally they complete their second at Tufts, where they take nine out of the 12 required public health courses needed to earn an MPH with a concentration in law. The combined program is approximately one year shorter than separate JD and MPH programs that award the two degrees individually.

"Many health care and public health problems are impossible to solve or even comprehend without first understanding the language used by public health professionals," says Scarborough. "An attorney without a background in public health may not understand how legal solutions to problems like access to health care actually play out."

"Law is one of the most powerful tools public health has to make issues go forward," Boumil adds. "Those in public health can do public service announcements or create incentives for people to be environmentally friendly, but it's often the lawyers that end up really getting things done when other public health efforts don't work."

Getting the opportunity to actually practice the law at the MLPC, Freitas feels the combined knowledge provided by the MPH degree is a great tool for her and her colleagues.

"I think that having these two degrees come together really gives you a toolbox with which you can make important changes," Freitas says. "We talk about social justice and social change, but the JD/MPH program gives you all the tools so you need so that you can actually create that social change and begin to make progress toward social justice."

By Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

Related Stories
Related Links
Featured Profile


For More Information

Web Communications
T: 617.627.4282
F: 617.627.3549

Media Inquiries

Siobhan Gallagher
T: 617.636.6586
F: 617.636.3871

Andrea Grossman
T: 617.636.3728
F: 617.636.3871