Game Theory and Medicine

June 13, 2017

It's been radio silence for a few weeks as I have raced to beat various deadlines. The last of these lifted as I gave a talk on Thursday in the Internal Medicine Department at the University of Iowa. This was, needless to say, my first presentation to an audience in scrubs. I owe the rare privilege to my brother Brian, who is a faculty member at Iowa in internal medicine (pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine) and neurology.

What can a social scientist say that would be interesting, and on topic, to a group of physicians? Well, strategic interaction is everywhere, and the folks at Iowa were interested in learning some game theory. There are limits to what one can do in an hour, but we managed to cover the basics and to talk through a few applications, including to vaccination. The decision to vaccinate—oneself, or one's children—is typically characterized by strategic substitutability: the more that others vaccinate, the stronger is the incentive to rely on herd immunity and not bear the (real or perceived) cost of vaccination. Equilibria will consequently be "interior," with some but not all individuals choosing to vaccinate. Whether this is sufficient to eradicate a disease--well, you should check out my slides.

Relying on the herd

Putting this together was a lot of fun. I learned some medicine (including the morning of the talk, when I got to hang out with the lung-transfer team) and also some network games. (A big shout-out to Matthew Jackson and Yves Zenou for their excellent paper on "Games on Networks" and to Daron Acemoglu and Asu Ozdaglar for some exceptionally clear notes on network effects.) And, for a day, I got to pretend that I was a real doctor.