Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

Is there an economist in the house?

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i2160 (Published 18 May 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2160
  1. Dare Oladokun, foundation year three doctor and masters in health economics candidate, Heidelberg University, Germany
  1. dareoladokun{at}doctors.org.uk

Abstract

Dare Oladokun explains why studying health economics is useful for doctors

There is a shortage of health economists both nationally and internationally.1 Health economists who also have clinical experience are even less common1 and occupy a niche that benefits both their clinical and academic practice.

What is health economics?

Health economics involves the application of economic principles and methodologies to healthcare production and distribution. It is a bridge between economics and the health sciences that allows the application of methodologies between both disciplines.2 Typical axioms of economics and market behaviour do not always apply to healthcare so health economists modify and apply economic principles to guide decision making.

Health economics has gained prominence in recent times as healthcare finances become increasingly tight. It has come to the fore as a framework for combining knowledge from economics with health research fields—such as public health, management, and informatics—to guide healthcare spending and resource allocation.

Why doctors should study health economics

Doctors can benefit from understanding health economics because they deal with the challenges that health economists are trying to solve. Clinicians often have to choose between competing interventions for disease management and they sometimes need to make economic cases to push for adoption of new technologies within their practice.

Choosing the most effective interventions—regardless of “value for money”—will ultimately lead to the exhaustion of resources. Conversely, basing these decisions on cost alone is also wrong—doing nothing is often the cheapest option. The ability to perform economic evaluations, or at least critically evaluate health economic evidence, can be invaluable for decision making.

Clinicians with knowledge of health economics can help to provide a balance between the human aspect of healthcare and the empirical nature of economics. They are ideally placed to identify problems that can benefit from an economics approach. Guidelines are often based on health economic evidence. Knowledge of the processes involved can help doctors understand the limitations of such evidence and may encourage their participation in the development of future guidelines.

Doctors interested in non-clinical career paths can also benefit from training in health economics. Health economics is at the forefront of health research and the need for high quality economic evaluations represent research priorities for numerous diseases.34 The unprecedented availability of digital health data also makes possession of econometrics and economic modelling skills valuable for clinical and health services researchers. There is currently a drive for doctors to take on leadership roles5 and health economics training, alongside management training, can prove very useful.

My interest was sparked when I was undertaking research and realised how quickly health technology advancements were outstripping our ability to pay for them. Recent politicisation of healthcare delivery in the UK also increased my interest in questions such as how best to pay for healthcare, how much to provide, and for whom such care should be provided. These are questions junior doctors often have little time to think about in their busy daily practice so I decided to take a year out to study for a full time masters degree in health economics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Training in health economics

Prospective health economists usually undergo masters study followed by further academic training or professional experience in the field. Masters courses are widely available and some universities offer combination courses with subjects such as public health, health policy, or management. The National Institute for Health Research funds studentships and fellowships.6 Doctors wishing to study health economics can apply for out-of-programme experiences or career breaks following foundation or core specialty training. They can also undertake part time study alongside clinical training. Those unable to commit to a masters programme can undergo shorter training such as postgraduate certificates. Free online education platforms such as Coursera (www.coursera.org) and Futurelearn (www.futurelearn.com) offer introductory modules in health economics.

While there are many excellent courses in the UK, I chose to study abroad for an international outlook. Observing the NHS from the outside has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. I plan to return to clinical training after the programme and, while I remain committed to a clinical career, the junior doctors’ contract dispute has made me realise that it doesn’t hurt to have options.

Footnotes

  • I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and declare that I have no competing interests.

References

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