DS file photo - 076
Photo courtesy of David Studdert

David M. Studdert is living proof that the world is indeed small. Over the course of his career, he has racked up an impressive number of air miles—the “zeal for travel” reputation of his fellow Australians borne out by 14- and 24-hour journeys from his home in Melbourne to the United States. For Studdert, it has been an intellectual journey, the travel all about finding the best programs at which to study, research, and teach. Along the way, he has built an expertise in the growing field of empirical legal research and public health policy, becoming one of its foremost scholars (and writing some 150-plus articles too). This November, he will leave Australia once again to take up a joint appointment with Stanford’s law and medical schools.

“Stanford is one university, and there aren’t many of them, that has an extremely strong law school and an extremely strong medical school, with really interesting things happening in both places,” he says. “For me, it’s heaven.”

A theme of Studdert’s recent research at the University of Melbourne, where he has been on the faculty since 2007, has been trying to understand how the legal system affects the health and well-being of populations.

“It’s a complicated relationship to study, because there are many things that influence health outcomes in populations, and when you consider all the different influences the legal system is a long way upstream,” he says. He gives an example of one recent project that looked at traffic law infringements. Does getting a ticket for speeding or running a red light change a driver’s behavior, and if so for how long? “It’s a ubiquitous element of our legal system—lots of people get tickets—but we really don’t know whether that reduces their risk of having accidents. Maybe it’s a sign that they’re about to have an accident.”

Studdert’s interest in health policy dates back to his first job after graduating from the University of Melbourne with a law degree. He did his articles of clerkship at a law firm, working with a senior partner who was a medical malpractice litigator.

“I wanted to be a practicing lawyer. My parents are both professors and I had no interest in following in their footsteps,” he says. “But I became very interested in health care issues right at the start of my career.”

After working at the firm for several years, he took a policy advisor position with the Minister for Health in Australia, digging into national health policy. “I quite liked practicing law but found myself spending too many hours that should have been billable trying to figure out how the system worked,” he says. “I had this hankering to find out more about the civil justice system. And then I started asking the same kinds of questions about the health care system.” That curiosity spurred him on to pursue a master of public health degree, as well as an ScD at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Studdert then launched his career in legal and health policy research at the Los Angeles office of the think tank, the RAND Corporation. “I was recruited by a renowned researcher in the law and policy field by the name of Deborah Hensler,” he says, smiling. “I don’t know if it was me, but she didn’t stay long after I arrived.” (Hensler left RAND to join Stanford Law and is now the Judge John W. Ford Professor of Dispute Resolution and associate dean for graduate studies.)

Studdert returned to Boston in 2000 to begin his teaching career at the Harvard School of Public Health. He taught there for six years. “I found I loved interacting with students and enjoyed the excitement of the classroom.” Next, as a member of the faculty at the University of Melbourne, with joint appointments in the law school and school of population health, and as deputy head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, he has also enjoyed teaching and involving students in his research.

“At Melbourne I’ve consistently had three or four law students working with our group during the academic year—and more over the summer. They’re really smart and engaged, and form an important part of the team,” he says.

He watched from afar as Stanford Law School has steadily built its empirical legal faculty and its reputation in the field. “Stanford is really showing the way. It’s quite remarkable how many top-notch empiricists the law school has attracted. People like John Donohue are giants in the field,” he says.

Studdert is also looking forward to working with Hensler and the newly launched Law and Policy Lab at Stanford Law School, which she co-directs. The lab matches students to faculty-supervised policy projects. “Many of us draw students into our work in an ad hoc way. Providing a structure for this to happen across the school can only be a good thing,” he says.

Studdert will teach health law to students this spring in a course focusing on regulation of the quality and safety of health care. “This is timely because many parts of the Affordable Care Act are concerned with leveraging improvements in the quality of care patients get,” he says. “In fact, the act’s name is a bit misleading because there’s much more about quality and access to care in the act than there is about how we’re going to pay for it all. Improving how care is delivered can be expensive, so there’s often a tension between trying to boost quality and keep costs down. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out over the next five to ten years.”

So the timing is right for his move back to the United States. “It’s a very exciting moment to be studying the U.S. health care system.”

Studdert’s path to Stanford may have been a bit winding, but not completely surprising.

“I’m Australian born and bred, but my mother is American, in fact she’s from Northern California. So I am a U.S. citizen too and I spent time in the States when I was growing up,” he says. And as he, his wife, and three young children prepare to move to his mother’s birthplace, she’s feeling a pang. “I know it’s a cruel twist for Mum to watch us march off to California now. We have an expression Down Under, ‘the tyranny of distance.’ It’s real­—but then that’s what Qantas is for.” SL