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Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine

By Sam Kim

 

TINSTAAFL. Mr. Murphy, my high school economics teacher, repeated that acronym time and time again. “If you guys forget everything else I teach you this year, just remember There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch – TINSTAAFL. Period.” (I may not be recalling this adage verbatim, but come on, it was high school. I was far more interested in the blonde girl sitting next to me than in committing it to memory exactly.)

 

I remember realizing the irony of Mr. Murphy using an acronym to save time, only to repeatedly explain its meaning letter-by-letter.  But, after our class’ rather extensive discussion on opportunity cost and the ‘utils’ of satisfaction, I more or less agreed with the phrase. Yes, these economic lunches surely were not free. I vowed to maximize my ‘utils’ forthwith . . . once I managed to say “hi” to Jackie without my voice cracking.

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in my high school’s creaky little wooden desks (though cool introductions to women still seem to elude me), but something else has changed now that I’m here in medical school. The world inside the Medical Science Building seems to be in some sort of parallel universe where the laws of TINSTAAFL don’t apply – there are free lunches.

 

As I ponder the numerous lunch talks put on by various student organizations here at UC CoM, I wonder: Are they free? I mean, sure I lose the time I could be studying in the library or eating a delicious Chipotle lunch, but I think that presupposes that I would do either of those things in the absence of a lunch talk. So, where’s the cost? I have smugly counted my utils of satisfaction and decided that I am somehow beating the system, extracting all the free lunches at zero cost, muhahaha. Take that, high school microeconomics class!

 

Putting aside my own seemingly ingenious circumvention of the laws of economics, I did pause and wonder why this time-honored tradition of lunch talks persists.

 

The Medical Student Association (MSA) receives roughly $40,000 in general fees from students via allocation from the Student Advisory Committee on the annual University Budget (SACUB). MSA itself has a treasury that hovers around the six-figure mark. MSA funding guidelines (to a registered UC CoM organization) state that no more than 50% of a club’s budget may be used towards lunch talks. That seems reasonable, right? I mean, even if one conservatively inserts some numbers and considers that the average lunch talk with Adriatico’s, Ambar, or Jimmy John’s costs around $150, that adds up to some pretty hefty numbers by year’s end.

 

I sense we have free lunches because of the Field of Dreams Principle: if you feed them, they will come. But what’s the point? I am reminded by a recent interaction I had with a fellow student:

 

“Hey, are you going to the lunch thing?”

“Oh, the one with the Adriatico’s or the Chinese food?”

“Oh, definitely the Chinese – I’m so sick of Adriatico’s.”

 

Am I missing something here? When I worked as a marketer for a large multi-billion dollar corporation, our business moves were often driven by statistics. Corporate America also follows the give-them-food-so-they-will-buy-our-stuff model. We did not, however, consider this a high-yield strategy. Ideal models projected that, from initial contact, one-in-six people would follow up and one-in-ten would actually follow-through with a purchase.

 

However, lunch talks at the school of medicine are not selling a product. If average attendance is around 50 people, we’re conservatively looking at retaining five truly interested people. At $150 a talk, the math seems simple: it costs of about 30 bucks a person. I would bet that I could sign up more people for a project by offering them five bucks apiece.

 

To be fair, the aims of our lunch talks differ significantly from those of a business.  Discussion topics, like women’s health or primary care shortages, are nonquantifiable. They cannot be assessed by the corporate America’s benchmarks. This discussion does make me wonder if lunch talks are, perhaps, not the best use of our time and money.

 

I will focus on the lunch talks sponsored by student-run orgs (as opposed to those supplemented by hospital funds). If the emergency department wants to fatten us up with delicious Topper’s Pizza, I will love them for it. Opthamology, too, is welcome to fuel our glycogen levels with a veritable cornucopia of treats. The student orgs, however, are funded in large part by money that we as a student body supply. Check your bank account - our own coffers are not flush with funds.

 

So many of our federally-loaned dollars go towards one program or another charity. While this certainly satisfies a need to keep in touch with our compassionate side, I am often confused as to why the main funding target for student-run programs is . . . the students. On Wall Street, this kind of business model would only be endorsed by credit-default-swap brokers and overwhelmed Bernie Madoff Ponzi schemes. We are using student-sourced dollars to create events to encourage students to put more dollars towards ourselves. Why don’t we just write checks to ourselves, cash them, and then buy ourselves pizza to encourage further check-writing to ourselves?

 

I am a firm supporter of active students and student organizations. But, given the extraordinary financial undertaking of medical school, it behooves us, as responsible citizens and future advocates for our patients, to look at the efficacy of our own actions and statements.

Failure of the Lunch Talk

Is a free lunch from Adriatico's really free?

 

12/16/11

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