How can an economist help people get kidney transplants? Alvin Roth talks to NPR about his unusual breakthrough
For the more than 100,000 people in the United States who desperately need a kidney transplant, the wait can be excruciating. Matches and blood tests must be precise. Logistics—including communications between doctors, hospitals, and transit teams in charge of quickly getting the kidney from the donor to the recipient—must be immaculate.
Prof. Alvin Roth
It might be surprising, then, to find out that the man in the forefront of helping people get kidneys faster is not a doctor, but a BSF-funded economist. Alvin Roth, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2012, has written a new book, Who Gets What – and Why, in which he explains how he applies his economic expertise in matching markets in order to make substantial advancements in decidedly non-economic areas—such as kidney transplants.
Roth is a pioneer in the field of game theory and experimental economics and in their application to the design of new economic institutions. Early in his career, he and Prof. Ido Erev from the Technion received BSF funding on three different occasions for their work on how reinforcement learning can make useful predictions in experimental games.
Roth, currently the Craig and Susan McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University, was recently interviewed on NPR about his new book. He said that it was his interest in mathematics that led to his work with kidney transplants. When he was a Harvard professor, he used kidney transplants as examples in his game theory classes. Since it was (and still is) illegal to pay for kidneys, he figured that, without the involvement of money, kidney transplants would be an area rife with possibilities for using mathematic theories about who gets kidney transplants, and when.
From this, he and his team started building a database of people who were willing to participate in a new concept he was developing—a kidney exchange. Working closely with doctors and patients at 14 transplant centers, he took information on everything from patient blood types to the number of operating rooms needed to perform the transplant. With all of this information in one place—and shared among doctors and hospitals—the time it takes to get kidneys to recipients has been improved.
Roth told NPR that this experience exemplifies his belief that economists can make important strides in fields other than economies.
“I kind of think of economists as being helpers here,” he said. “We have some ideas, but we don't do any of the surgeries.”