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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

A U of M professor of economics budgets his time between student investment and research in medical technology.

Dollars and Sense
by Chris Przybyszewski

Dr. Albert Okunade

Dr. Albert Okunade

In the wrong hands, economics can be drab, drowning students in a sludge of statistics and line graphs. But to see the spark in Dr. Albert Okunade's eyes as he discusses the practical uses of economics is to see that the subject is something greater.

"Economics permeates all human endeavors," says Okunade, a professor of economics at The University of Memphis. "Whether we realize it or not, rational beings practice logical economic thinking to decide how to satisfy unlimited human wants in the face of limited resources."

A Nigerian-born scholar, Okunade came to the United States in 1977 and gained his U.S. citizenship in 1994. He holds a total of four degrees from Wright State (Ohio) University and the University of Arkansas, and he aims his own love of learning at his students. The U of M has affirmed his teaching ability by choosing him as a semifinalist (1997) and two-time finalist (1994 and 2000) for the University's Distinguished Teaching Award.

More recently, Okunade received The U of M Alumni Association's 2002 Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award. He was selected for achievement in business and the social sciences. A self-professed "research professor," Okunade has published more than 70 research papers and has given more than 40 lectures across the globe. He says the work he does out of the classroom will directly benefit students in the classroom.

And though his research often puts him on the road, Okunade says his top priority is his students.

"The University does not exist independently or in isolation from the community," he says. "The University is here to serve the community; the faculty is here to serve the students."

Okunade is confident that serving students is a great way to achieve a better community. It is a priority that keeps him close to campus, even during the summer months when he has no courses to teach.

"Students are around in the summer, so I am still here," he says. "I think it is the honorable thing. I get involved in research because I love it, but I love teaching, too."

Although research and teaching may have their differences, Okunade believes that good professors must integrate the two.

"There is no dichotomy between them," he says. "I submit to this sincerely. Good teachers must teach new stuff. Give students the foundations of the old stuff, but encourage them to examine new ideas. That is where intellectual progress comes from."

Okunade has focused his own intellectual progress on health care economics and how medical technology has attributed a significant amount — as much as 60 percent — to rising health care costs.

"Technology is expensive," he says. "Individuals, doctors, hospitals — they prefer the 'Cadillac' of health care over the 'Chevrolet.' So if they are ill, they want the best. But guess what? The best does not come cheaply."

Medical care improves as new technologies burst on the scene, but Okunade is an advocate of responsible technological growth — otherwise that very growth can make health care extremely expensive. For example, he says, the Food and Drug Administration often does cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses before it allows new medicines into the market.

Okunade is a proponent of two alternatives to health care technology that can have an enormous impact on the industry. The first involves a healthier lifestyle; the second involves patent laws.

Okunade advocates better nutrition as an effective way to improve the health care industry, and a less costly one at that. "Health care is the most expensive way to improve health status, so I'm not sure why we always opt for health care," he says. "We could invest in better lifestyles, but instead we choose the more expensive way of augmenting health care."

Meantime, Okunade proposes a closer examination of patent laws. Current patent laws protect a product for about 20 years, but Okunade says shorter patent lengths would stimulate new research and improve existing products. Lengthy patents can become a crutch if they effectively block out legitimate competition.

At home, the presence of three teenage children gives Okunade more reason to appreciate economics. He and his wife, Olatoun, are putting their oldest son through college to be an engineer; the other children are in high school.

Wherever his research takes him, Okunade is confident there will always be a place for economics. "In general," he says, "limited resources, unlimited wants, choice, incentives and the mindset of rational decision-making all make human behaviors fundamentally economic."

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