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May 17, 2015 | by  | in Science |
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Physicist disguised as an economist

When I tell people I’m a health economist for PHARMAC, the usual reaction is “what the hell is that?” Occasionally people say “you just work out how much stuff costs, right?” If that was my entire job was, it would be very easy (after all, it’s basically drug cost times dosage).

Most of my time is spent working out what benefits pharmaceuticals have. This involves reading a lot of clinical trials and talking to a lot of specialists (which is lucky because I have no medical training at all). Of course, clinical trials are rarely perfect. They stop early; have weird protocols and small sample sizes; and a whole host of other things. All these things are the reason I do my job. A lot of my day consists of working out extrapolations, distributions, and Markov models; big words that aren’t nearly as complicated as they sound. The other hard part is working out if the drug actually improves people’s lives. Loads of pharmaceuticals change, this or that hormone but do they actually reduce pain or prevent heart attacks? This is not always obvious, especially because some doctors like to “treat the numbers” and not the patient.

How did I end up here if I have no medical training you ask? Well, I did Physics and Maths at university. Turns out that being able to work with data is a very useful skill. You also discover that being able to apply things across subjects can create breakthroughs you didn’t expect. I’ve applied equations from nuclear physics to cancer models for example. Still haven’t found anything that would be a simple harmonic oscillator though (I’m obviously still a physicist at heart).

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