How to present health economics to non-economists

3 min read
two people working
First Published: 
May 2006

When speaking to non-economists, do you end up feeling that you’ve made a difficult science completely unintelligible? It doesn’t have to be that way. Kevin Frick, PhD, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Health Services Research and Development Center, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been collaborating with and speaking to non-economist audiences for almost ten years. His take-home message – understand your audience.

First understand, then be understood

Dr. Frick learned that lesson the hard way. “I had been working with colleagues in the School of Nursing for six years before I really took the time to read some of their background material,” he says. When he did so, he realised that the concepts they think about resemble what he uses in building an argument for studying quality-adjusted life-years. “The economic paradigm is not outside the realm of what they’re thinking about. It’s just a more structured way of doing it.”

Dr. Frick notes that learning about your audience takes a certain level of investment, but it pays off with audiences saying, “That makes so much sense.” He has lectured to a wide range of clinicians, both academically and as a consultant. He is frequently called upon to give lectures on economics and a wide variety of clinical topics, and he has some suggestions for effective presentation:

  • Stay consistent

Dr. Frick says, rather than providing economic information on a “need-to-know” basis (to avoid overwhelming the audience with details), it’s best to stay consistent in the level of discourse. “You have to understand whether the audience wants the 30,000-foot level, the 5,000-foot level, or the microscopic level. I try to make sure that everything I present stays at one level.”

  • Use a decision tree

Most people understand basic economic decision making, and using a simple decision tree can help to explain health economics principles. For example, the user can either do A or B, and each choice has two possible outcomes. “Even a novice can understand a decision tree and that what we’re really looking at is the risk differences for what’s going to happen, depending on the choice.” Once they understand the decision tree, they can understand the concepts of assumptions and risk calculations in an economic analysis.

  • Keep it real

It helps to remind audiences not only what health economics is, but also what it isn’t. Health economic analyses are only as good as the efficacy/effectiveness studies upon which they are built. Discussing health economics with a non-economist can produce a better outcome for both parties. “It forces you to think about the core elements of what you do.”

  • Break the rules!

George Orwell’s sixth rule for effective writing is, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”. This also holds true for presenting health economic analyses. Health economists, particularly those in pharmaceutical companies or schools of public health or medicine, must learn to adapt their communication to each audience. Reaching out to engage your audience may mean breaking some rules (for example, speaking in more detail – the microscopic level – to explain a certain point).

Dr. Frick believes that the most receptive audiences are not categorised by a particular therapeutic area or medical discipline, but are those who have a clear policy issue with which they are struggling; they are able to use the research findings in a real world problem.

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Mary Gabb
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