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Undergraduate Learning of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious School of Medicine

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s official, kids: if you want to study something in college that will ensure your success in medical school, economics is the only way to go. Don’t be fooled by those who claim that being a non-science major will put you at an intellectual or practical disadvantage.

First, there’s the obvious fact that economics, economic thinking, and economic analysis pervade all aspects of human endeavour, and in few sectors is this more visible than in medicine. If you want to understand the forces shaping the profession you strive to enter, economics provides relevant background knowledge and a versatile tool-kit that can provide valuable insight into topics as diverse as: why are bioethicists consistently opposed to many forms of medical progress; why paediatric subspecialists make less money than their adult counterparts; why radiologists make so much; and whether medical students should be required to be paid for research work. All of this is just at the micro level that is directly visible in medical practice; evaluating health policy and trends at a macro level is an even more self-evident example of economics at work in medicine.

But let’s put all of that aside for a second. I return to my sure-to-be-controversial assertion: studying economics will make you a better medical student. Especially when dealing with the basic sciences.

Don’t believe me? Consider the following:

1) The bicarbonate buffer in blood

Carbon dioxide + water <--> carbonic acid <--> bicarbonate + hydrogen ion


For whatever reason, you’re hyperventilating. Your carbon dioxide levels decrease. The equation above (and Le Chatelier’s principle) tells us that more carbonic acid will dissociate to carbon dioxide and water, and in turn more bicarbonate and hydrogen will combine to form carbonic acid, thus reducing the acidity of your blood. However, as was asked in lecture last semester:

But wait! If we form more carbonic acid, won’t that just go back to bicarbonate and hydrogen by mass action? And that means that more carbon dioxide and water will form carbonic acid, and so on! So there’s no net change in blood pH!

Wrong! Economics teaches us how to interpret the difference between exogenous and endogenous changes in a model like this. This scenario is an example of respiratory alkalosis. It only works conceptually if you can differentiate between the exogenous change in carbon dioxide, and the endogenous changes in all of the other variables.

2) Enzyme kinetics and Lineweaver-Burk plots


What on Earth is going on here? Suppose I were to tell you that this graph relates the maximum activity of an enzyme (Vmax) to the concentration of its substrate ([S]). Suppose I were to tell you that Km is the concentration of substrate that gives one-half of Vmax, and is inversely related to the affinity of the enzyme for its substrate. Now suppose I ask you what’s going on when PHBA and phenylthiourea are added?

This isn’t the most intuitive concept. To my surprise, I found that graph reading and interpretation are similarly non-intuitive for many people, even if they understand the underlying concept.

What else does an intro macroeconomics exam consist of if not oodles of “before-and-after” graphs of various economic variables and space in which to supply the explanation for what could have caused the changes the graphs depict? And don’t get me started on the strange graphing shenanigans that go on in microeconomics. A background in economics lets you see graphs as a tool to learn unfamiliar concepts, not an obstacle needing to be studied in its own right.

If you’re still not convinced that the path to academic success in medical school goes through your undergraduate economics department, I present to you the show-stopper:

3) Cardiac output and venous return

Supply and... venous return?


Cardiac output and... demand?

Yup, it all comes back down to supply and demand. Even in medical school. It’s everywhere.

So to all you aspiring medical students out there: put away your lab goggles and pick up your copy of Stata. You’ll find it in the Edgeworth Box.

I think you’ll find that the marginal benefits greatly exceed the marginal costs.


Confused by the title?

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  1. May 6, 2011 at 23:43

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