Why health or science alone can’t solve this pandemic

Peter Ubel has one of the most unique perspectives in the health care industry. He is a primary care physician and behavioral scientist who has deeply researched what leads us to make decisions about our health. Peter explains that science can help us predict the consequences of our choices around this pandemic – but it will take politics to actually solve it.

Dean Bill Boulding interviews Peter Ubel on Instagram

Peter Ubel, Madge and Dennis T. McLawhorn University Professor

“When we look at what the science can do here we actually have to go beyond thinking of this as a health and economic crisis. It’s also an educational crisis. It’s a food crisis. It’s a mental health crisis. There have been a number of governors who have been getting together regionally to try to navigate and coordinate efforts in responding to the pandemic. And a mantra that a number of them have talked about is, we are going to follow the science, not politics, to lead us out of this pandemic. It’s a noble thought and I think it’s a contrast to places around the world, or even, some would say, our own federal government, that aren’t always following the science in trying to figure out how to handle the pandemic. But in actuality, it’s a deep misunderstanding of how science works. We actually need politics to get us out of this crisis. What science can do is not tell us what to do, it can tell us the likely things that will happen if we choose path one, path two, path three.”


“I want to make a distinction between facts and value judgments. What science can do is help us understand the facts. What decision making involves is value judgments. So it might be a patient who has cancer. And they are choosing between two chemotherapies. They need science to know what’s the impact of chemotherapy one on my life expectancy and on the side effects of an experience. What’s the effect of chemotherapy two? And it might be that one has a higher rate of cure, but much worse side effects. Science doesn't tell that patient what to take. It says, here's what the outcomes are if you choose one versus another. The same goes for what science can do in helping us navigate the pandemic. Now immunity passports are a great example of how science can give us some facts. You take a blood test. It finds that you have the antibodies to the virus. That's a good thing. We hope that reflects you're not going to get in any risk of immediate infection, and therefore, you’re also not going to be spreading the infection to someone else. That might be a way of knowing who to bring into the workforce safely. What science also tells us, and this is often actually the science of eighteenth-century decision making, a guy named Reverend Thomas Bayes, that says how good a test is, is not just a function of the test. It’s a function of how many people in the population have the disease. And right now, let’s suppose the test, four percent of the time, gets it wrong. And says you had the virus even when you didn't. If four percent of the population has been exposed to the virus that means half the time when the test says that you had the virus, it’s wrong because that four percent and the four percent match up. So right now, with most of us not having been exposed to the best of our knowledge, no serology test, no antibody test is going be very accurate.”


“I think it's a fantastic time to be in business school. And actually, to be much more specific than that, it’s a fantastic time to be at Fuqua. We have a lot of strengths at Fuqua. I think we are in a great part of the country, a real vibrant part of the economy. Actually, it’s probably a safer place to live than a lot of parts of the country right now. But we also have a very strong health care program here. It's not the only reason to go to Fuqua by any means, but it is one reason. And I think this pandemic has really shown to people how important health care is to society overall. And the fact that whether the economy is strong or weak, health care is still an important need. And so working in health care is actually pretty good job security. So being at a place with such a strong history of health care, surrounded by a fantastic medical center and then an alumni network working in health care across the different parts of the health care sector, I think it is a perfect time to come here.”


Quick Facts

Area: Marketing

Elective Course: Health Institutions, Systems and Policy

Researches: Informed consent, shared decision making, health care rationing and spending

Street Cred:

Winner of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton (2000)

Member of the World Economic Forum, The Global Health Committee, The Association for Psychological Science, The American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and The Society for Medical Decision Making

Books include, “Pricing Life: Why it’s time for healthcare rationing” (2000), “Free Market Madness: How economics is at odds with human nature—and why it matters” (2009), “Critical Decisions” (2012) which explores the challenges of shared decision making between doctors and patients, and “Sick to Debt: How Smarter Markets Lead to Better Care” (2019)


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