Docs Not So Helpful

In one of my first blog posts back in 2006 I said people overestimate the social value of joining a helping profession, like doctors:

Yes, if you choose to be a doctor, you will spend your time providing services that people perceive to have value, sometimes enormous value. However, you cannot take full credit for this value. (more)

Now 80,000 Hours’ Rob Wiblin, who once blogged here, says “If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not”:

Most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career. The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA. (more)

In contrast, 80,000 Hours is quite bullish on getting an Economics PhD.

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  • Ken Arromdee

    That first post you linked is terrible. Having an additional doctor contributes to the market for doctors and the increase in supply on the market marginally reduces the price that all doctors charge. The benefit from this marginal reduction in price goes directly to the patients.

    Be sure that if you’re subtracting things most people don’t think about, you’re adding things most people don’t think about as well.

    • Price changes are not in themselves net welfare gains.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Stephen: I was replying to item 3 in the original post, which assumed that it does mean an additional doctor.

        Robin: They are not net welfare gains, because the patients’ gain is the doctors’ loss, but they are relevant if your aim is to help patients.

      • IMASBA

        You win slightly cheaper doctors, you lose potential scientists, engineers, counselors, garbagemen, plumbers, etc… This can be a net loss with regards to years of life saved/added because doctors indeed don’t save that many years beyond some basic medicine stuff that only a minority of doctors are employed in.

      • Ken Arromdee

        The marginal benefit is slightly cheaper doctors, by a small amount added up over a large number of doctors. It’s not obvious that this is necessarily less than the loss from not being a plumber instead of a doctor. Note that becoming a plumber is subject to many of the same objections as becoming a doctor–being a plumber only helps if someone found using a plumber to be only marginally better than not using one, so the improvement is not large.

        Also, we have QALY and not just LY for a reason. Quality of life is important, not just years of life.

      • IMASBA

        QALYs are mostly used as an NHS designation, not everyone knows about them. Public hygiene is far more important than most of healthcare (measured as portion of total budget and man-hours) when it comes to health outcomes, especially since public hygiene is mostly preventive, that difference will only get bigger when you look at QALYs instead of LYs.

    • With the medical profession engaged in massive rent seeking by restricting admissions to medical school, the choice to become a doctor doesn’t mean an additional doctor.

  • ipencil

    If you care about improving people’s health, I recommend becoming a personal trainer. Doctor’s are woefully undertrained in the effectiveness of exercise and nutrition, mainly due to their obvious ignornace of both. I’d recommend watching this starting at around 38:30. At 38:49, Doug Larson starts talking, a man who I think really knows his stuff. He talks about the importance of having a good coach and why he thinks (and I agree) they should be thought of as just as valuable as doctors and other medical professions.

    You can watch many of these guys videos. They interview a very diverse group of people from doctors, to trainers (of all sports), to yogis. The underlying theme of much of what they talk about is that our medical system is fantastic for accute disease and traumatic injury, but sucks at general health and nutrition, since so much medical training is devoted to accute disease and trauma.

  • Glossy

    “Most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine…”

    Smart and hardworking enough. Skilled is the wrong word. A person who has more than a certain amount of intelligence and capacity for hard work can acquire the skills needed to pracrice medicine. A person just contemplating a career in medicine typically has no skills in it yet.

    “In confrast, 80,000 Hours is quite bullish on getting an Economics PhD.”

    Economics is a bunch of political opinions dressed up with math-like nonsense. It’s a blatant scam. A bunch of conmen telling you to subscribe to their politics because “science” proves them right.

    A real science can tell you things that are both true and non-obvious to laymen. Economocs will never be able to come up with a single such thing. It’s much more harmful to society than astrology ever was. There was always a possibility that the study of the heavens could produce knowledge that is both true and new. There is no such possibility with economics.

    • Well, you know Wiblin wanted to say “smart” people (not “skilled” people, which of course is ridiculous); but it would have sounded snobbish. (Training in hypocrisy takes its toll on clarity.)

      What Robin ignores in comparing medicine and economics is the likelihood of doing harm. Far from innocuous, coveted fundamental theories in economics can prove utterly misguided.

    • robertwib

      Maybe should have used the word talented.

      Skill is a bit strange, but with this definition isn’t that far off:

      “the ability to do something well; a particular ability.”

  • Faze

    Doctors can offer relief for many types of pain. That is not “health” per se. But it’s priceless if you need it.

  • Your page keeps redirecting to something called “Educational Gardens” for some reason.

  • truth_machine

    As a whole, the benefit of the profession of economics to society is negative.

    • malkav60


    • Brandon Covert