On the Pleasures and Benefits of Collaborating with Other Professions

Dr Anthony Lowe, Chief Executive of Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, reflects on collaborating with people from diverse professional backgrounds and the benefits of doing so.

I am often asked why an actuary would become Chief Executive of Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia (PCFA) and, in particular, whether I still use my actuarial skills in my job.  It’s not just actuarial colleagues who ask – the last person who asked me was a medical oncologist!

The answer is, yes, I certainly do use my actuarial skills every day in my work.  Most obviously, like every non-profit organisation, PCFA is also a business (running on a very tight margin) and the actuarial training provides us with a solid grounding in business skills.  In my job that includes how to keep a very close eye on management financials; think about how the economic environment may affect future fundraising and partnerships; keep abreast of the effect of tax and regulatory changes; and ensure we reserve properly for multi-year research grants.  These are all skills I learned as a superannuation actuary and it’s professionally very fulfilling to be able to apply them in a broader environment for the benefit of the cause.  I would certainly encourage any actuary with an interest to become involved with community organisations like their local school or college, either on a board or as a volunteer, as we have a lot to offer and it’s very rewarding.

Perhaps more importantly for me, PCFA has many medical research activities involving multi-disciplinary teams of professionals.  In my role I collaborate with people from a broad range of disciplines including health economists, epidemiologists, surgeons and psychologists, and they all bring their particular perspectives to our work.  All actuaries, of course, interact with a wide variety of other professionals.  In my case it’s mainly health professionals, but for many it will be accountants, risk management specialists, lawyers and others.

Much of modern evidence-based medicine is founded on skills and techniques which are core to the actuarial training, such as statistical analysis; calculation of cost effectiveness; discounting of future costs and benefits; and estimation of life expectancy.  By way of example, three recent projects PCFA has been involved in include:

  • Estimation of life expectancy of men with multiple medical conditions needed for the development of a clinical guideline on prostate cancer testing. This project is co-funded by Actuaries Institute and PCFA and involves a team of epidemiologists at ANU and Karolinska Institute and Leonie Tickle at Macquarie University
  • Statistical analyses including chi-square analyses and hierarchical multiple regressions to describe the predictors of medical help-seeking for sexual dysfunction in prostate cancer survivors working with psychologists at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Cancer Council Queensland
  • Building a Markov health state transition model of the cost to the Australian community of prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment working with health economists at Griffith University.

It is gratifying, instructive and humbling to collaborate with colleagues from diverse professional backgrounds.  One thing I have learned is not to assume that actuaries have a monopoly on what we think of as our core professional skills.  For example, somewhat unexpectedly to me, the psychologists I work with have very strong statistical skills; the epidemiologists know a great deal about mortality tables; and the health economists well understand the need to discount future costs.  I’ve also gained a greater appreciation of the applicability of actuarial skills outside the financial services industry where I spent the first 20 years of my career.

It is equally interesting to observe how different professional training leads our collaborators to approach a problem in a particular way which may be very different from the way actuaries would typically approach it.  This even extends to tools: the health economists automatically assumed they would build the Markov health state transition model in TreeAge Pro – like a true actuary I would have used Excel!  There’s no right or wrong answer, just the different insights, accepted conventions and approaches of each profession.

As actuaries we have strong mathematical and analytical skills that are increasingly rare in today’s Australia and which, if used broadly, can enable us to take a leadership role working in multi-disciplinary teams.  The great pleasures of collaborating with professionals from diverse backgrounds are the richness it brings to working life; the opportunity to learn new skills; and seeing familiar actuarial skills through a different lens.  I would like to think it also makes me a better actuary and a better ambassador for our profession.

 

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