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David Chan, Senior Fellow

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This story is part of the Why Econ? series. Our affiliated students and faculty share why econ matters to them, their work, and our world.

Why Econ: David Chan, Faculty Fellow

Being a doctor and caring for patients, one-by-one, is a rewarding career. But what if your profession can improve the lives of many people, all at once?

That humanistic challenge is what inspired David Chan to take a hiatus from medical school to get a master’s in health policy — and a master’s and a PhD in economics — before completing his MD. And it’s what motivates him today as he juggles being an economist, doctor, and professor.

“The thing that appealed to me about economics is how you can help large groups of people as opposed to just the person in front of you,” Chan says from his office at Stanford Health Policy, a short walk from SIEPR where he is a senior fellow.

“Economics is fundamentally about people — the fact that people drive things, and we are designing policies to make the welfare of people better. That’s also something that we share in medicine — the business of helping people.”

No surprise — Chan is a health economist. And he is amid a growing group of economists developing groundbreaking insights into the delivery of health care.

“We know so much about the financing of health care from decades of research, but there's just a dearth of research in the delivery of it,” he says. “And now that we have a wealth of new data to start studying this, we can open the black box and literally ask why some hospitals spend less but have much better outcomes. We can really see what people are doing inside these hospitals.”

Chan’s research projects, for example, have found how emergency room doctors are more likely to quickly order costly tests when they’re about to end their shifts, and that the typical practice of relying on triage nurses to assign patients to ER doctors is far less effective than doctor-managed assignments.

In another study, Chan found significant cost differences between pneumonia cases handled by lower-skilled versus higher-skilled radiologists. The findings suggests more uniform policies for training.

“The currency of moving policy forward is increasingly going to be in the hands of those who can make recommendations based on data and analytics, and economics is definitely a field that has kept pace with that,” he says.

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