Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Warzones and medical research

There was a fascinating story on today's All Things Considered about the ways that our experiences with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have added to our understanding of emergency medicine:
The medevac choppers land and then taxi over to the gate just outside the emergency room, where gurneys are waiting. Nightfall has brought a bone-chilling wind, and a gang of nurses and orderlies rushes four patients into the warmth of the ER.

It's more than warm inside. In fact it's 100 degrees. It's the first clue that this hospital — the Joint Theater Hospital at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Field — is a little different. Through years of war, combat surgeons have learned that hypothermia is a big risk in patients with significant blood loss. Nine years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought some grim benefits: a new wealth of knowledge about treating war wounds.

"At the beginning of this conflict, we were taking the best trauma medicine from the civilian sector, and we brought it to Iraq and Afghanistan," says U.S. Air Force Col. Chris Benjamin, the hospital commander. He says now his doctors tell him it's the other way around.
This got me thinking about another story I heard on the same public radio station last night, the subject of my previous post. In it Steve Levitt said:
One of the easiest ways to differentiate an economist from almost anyone else in society is to test them with repugnant ideas. Because economists, either by birth or by training, have their mind open, or skewed in just such a way that instead of thinking about whether something is right or wrong, they think about it in terms of whether it's efficient, whether it makes sense.
In health and medicine, researchers (some of whom are, admittedly, economists) don't seem to have any trouble getting past the repugnance of ideas like using controversial wars as data gathering opportunities. It's true that these researchers pass up some data that is considered ethically tainted but this has nothing to do with the mentality of the researchers and everything to do with a set of ethical rules that many researchers consider to be overly restrictive and due for an overhaul.

Given these and other counterexamples, Dr. Levitt's quote may, more than anything else, tell us something about the way many economists see themselves.

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