Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th June 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Future and potential spending on health 2015–40: development assistance for health, and government, prepaid private, and out-of-pocket health spending in 184 countries. The Lancet [PubMed] Published 20th May 2017

The colossal research collaboration that is the Global Burden of Disease Study is well known for producing estimates of deaths and DALYs lost across the world due to a huge range of diseases. These figures have proven invaluable as a source of information to inform disease modelling studies and to help guide the development of public health programs. In this study, the collaboration turn their hands to modelling future health care expenditure. Predicting the future of any macroeconomic variable is tricky, to say the least. The approach taken here is to (1) model GDP to 2040 using an ensemble method, taking the ‘best performing’ models from the over 1,000 used (134 were included); (2) model all-sector government spending, out-of-pocket spending, and private health spending as a proportion of GDP in the same way, but with GDP as an input; and then (3) using a stochastic frontier approach to model maximum ‘potential’ spending. This latter step is an attempt to make the results potentially more useful by analysing different scenarios that might change overall health care expenditure by considering different frontiers. All of these steps would conceptually add a lot of uncertainty: the different probability of each model in the ensemble and the prediction uncertainty from each model including uncertainty in inputs such as size of population and demographic structure, all of which is propagated through the three step process. And this is without taking into account that health care spending at a national level is the result of a complex political decision making process, which can impact national income and prioritisation of health care in unforeseen ways (Brexit anyone?). Despite this, the predictions seem quite certain: health spending per capita is predicted to rise from $1,279 in 2014 to $2,872 with a 95% confidence intervention (or do they mean prediction interval?) of $2,426 to $3,522. It may well be a good model for average spending, but I suspect uncertainty (at least of a Bayesian kind) should be higher for a predictive model for 25 years into the future based on 20 years of data. The non-standard use of stochastic frontier analysis, which is typically a way of estimating technical efficiency, is also tricky to follow. The frontier is argued in this paper to be the maximum amount a country of similar levels of development spends on health care. This would also suggest that it is assumed spending cannot go higher than a country’s highest spending peer. A potentially strong assumption. Needless to say, these are the best predictions we currently have for future health care expenditure.

Discovering effect modification in an observational study of surgical mortality at hospitals with superior nursing. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A [ArXivPublished June 2017

An applied econometrician can find endogeneity everywhere. Such is the complexity of the social, political, and economic world. Everything is connected in some way. It’s one of the reasons I’ve argued before against null hypothesis significance testing: no effect is going to be exactly zero. Our job is one of measurement of the size of an effect and, crucially for this paper, what might affect the magnitude of these effects. This might start with a graphical or statistical exploratory analysis before proceeding to a confirmatory analysis. This paper proposes a method of exploratory analysis for treatment effect modifiers and examines the effect of superior nursing on treatment outcomes, which an approach I think to be a sensible scientific approach. But how does it propose to do it? Null hypothesis significance testing! Oh no! Essentially, the method involves a novel procedure for testing if treatment effects differ by group allowing for potential unobserved confounding and where the groups are also formed in a novel way. For example, the authors ask how much bias would need to be present for their conclusions to change. In terms of the effects of superior nurse staffing, the authors estimates that its beneficial treatment effect is the least sensitive to bias in a group of patients with the most serious conditions.

Incorporation of a health economic modelling tool into public health commissioning: Evidence use in a politicised context. Social Science & Medicine [PubMedPublished June 2017

Last up, a qualitative research paper (on an economics blog! I know…). Many health economists are involved in trying to encourage the incorporation of research findings into health care decision making and commissioning. The political decision making process often ends in inefficient or inequitable outcomes despite good evidence on what makes good policy. This paper explored how commissioners in an English local authority viewed a health economics decision tool for planning diabetes services. This is a key bit of research if we are to make headway in designing tools that actually improve commissioning decisions. Two key groups of stakeholders were involved, public health managers and politicians. The latter prioritized intelligence, local opinion, and social care agendas over scientific evidence from research, which was preferred by the former group. The push and pull between the different approaches meant the health economics tool was used as a way of supporting the agendas of different stakeholders rather than as a means to addressing complex decisions. For a tool to be successful it would seem to need to speak to or about the local population to which it is going to be applied. Well, that’s my interpretation. I’ll leave you with this quote from an interview with a manager in the study:

Public health, what they bring is a, I call it a kind of education scholarly kind of approach to things … whereas ‘social care’ sometimes are not so evidence-based-led. It’s a bit ‘well I thought that’ or, it’s a bit more fly by the seat of pants in social care.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 19th June 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Health-related resource-use measurement instruments for intersectoral costs and benefits in the education and criminal justice sectors. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 8th June 2017

Increasingly, people are embracing a societal perspective for economic evaluation. This often requires the identification of costs (and benefits) in non-health sectors such as education and criminal justice. But it feels as if we aren’t as well-versed in capturing these as we are in the health sector. This study reviews the measures that are available to support a broader perspective. The authors search the Database of Instruments for Resource Use Measurement (DIRUM) as well as the usual electronic journal databases. The review also sought to identify the validity and reliability of the instruments. From 167 papers assessed in the review, 26 different measures were identified (half of which were in DIRUM). 21 of the instruments were only used in one study. Half of the measures included items relating to the criminal justice sector, while 21 included education-related items. Common specifics for education included time missed at school, tutoring needs, classroom assistance and attendance at a special school. Criminal justice sector items tended to include legal assistance, prison detainment, court appearances, probation and police contacts. Assessments of the psychometric properties was found for only 7 of the 26 measures, with specific details on the non-health items available for just 2: test-retest reliability for the Child and Adolescent Services Assessment (CASA) and validity for the WPAI+CIQ:SHP,V2 (there isn’t room on the Internet for the full name). So there isn’t much evidence of any validity for any of these measures in the context of intersectoral (non-health) costs and benefits. It’s no doubt the case that health-specific resource use measures aren’t subject to adequate testing, but this study has identified that the problem may be even greater when it comes to intersectoral costs and benefits. Most worrying, perhaps, is the fact that 1 in 5 of the articles identified in the review reported using some unspecified instrument, presumably developed specifically for the study or adapted from an off-the-shelf instrument. The authors propose that a new resource use measure for intersectoral costs and benefits (RUM ICB) be developed from scratch, with reference to existing measures and guidance from experts in education and criminal justice.

Use of large-scale HRQoL datasets to generate individualised predictions and inform patients about the likely benefit of surgery. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published 31st May 2017

In the NHS, EQ-5D data are now routinely collected from patients before and after undergoing one of four common procedures. These data can be used to see how much patients’ health improves (or deteriorates) following the operations. However, at the individual level, for a person deciding whether or not to undergo the procedure, aggregate outcomes might not be all that useful. This study relates to the development of a nifty online tool that a prospective patient can use to find out the expected likelihood that they will feel better, the same or worse following the procedure. The data used include EQ-5D-3L responses associated with almost half a million unilateral hip or knee replacements or groin hernia repairs between April 2009 and March 2016. Other variables are also included, and central to this analysis is a Likert scale about improvement or worsening of hip/knee/hernia problems compared to before the operation. The purpose of the study is to group people – based on their pre-operation characteristics – according to their expected postoperative utility scores. The authors employed a recursive Classification and Regression Tree (CART) algorithm to split the datasets into strata according to the risk factors. The final set of risk variables were age, gender, pre-operative EQ-5D-3L profile and symptom duration. The CART analysis grouped people into between 55 and 60 different groups for each of the procedures, with the groupings explaining 14-27% of the variation in postoperative utility scores. Minimally important (positive and negative) differences in the EQ-5D utility score were estimated with reference to changes in the Likert scale for each of the procedures. These ranged in magnitude from 0.041 to 0.106. The resulting algorithms are what drive the results delivered by the online interface (you can go and have a play with it). There are a few limitations to the study, such as the reliance on complete case analysis and the fact that the CART analysis might lack predictive ability. And there’s an interesting problem inherent in all of this, that the more people use the tool, the less representative it will become as it influences selection into treatment. The validity of the tool as a precise risk calculator is quite limited. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that it unlocks some of the potential value of PROMs to provide meaningful guidance in the process of shared decision-making.

Can present biasedness explain early onset of diabetes and subsequent disease progression? Exploring causal inference by linking survey and register data. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 26th May 2017

The term ‘irrational’ is overused by economists. But one situation in which I am willing to accept it is with respect to excessive present bias. That people don’t pay enough attention to future outcomes seems to be a fundamental limitation of the human brain in the 21st century. When it comes to diabetes and its complications, there are lots of treatments available, but there is only so much that doctors can do. A lot depends on the patient managing their own disease, and it stands to reason that present bias might cause people to manage their diabetes poorly, as the value of not going blind or losing a foot 20 years in the future seems less salient than the joy of eating your own weight in carbs right now. But there’s a question of causality here; does the kind of behaviour associated with time-inconsistent preferences lead to poorer health or vice versa? This study provides some insight on that front. The authors outline an expected utility model with quasi-hyperbolic discounting and probability weighting, and incorporate a present bias coefficient attached to payoffs occurring in the future. Postal questionnaires were collected from 1031 type 2 diabetes patients in Denmark with an online discrete choice experiment as a follow-up. These data were combined with data from a registry of around 9000 diabetes patients, from which the postal/online participants were identified. BMI, HbA1c, age and year of diabetes onset were all available in the registry and the postal survey included physical activity, smoking, EQ-5D, diabetes literacy and education. The DCE was designed to elicit time preferences using the offer of (monetary) lottery wins, with 12 different choice sets presented to all participants. Unfortunately, despite the offer of a real-life lottery award for taking part in the research, only 79 of 1031 completed the online DCE survey. Regression analyses showed that individuals with diabetes since 1999 or earlier, or who were 48 or younger at the time of onset, exhibited present bias. And the present bias seems to be causal. Being inactive, obese, diabetes illiterate and having lower quality of life or poorer glycaemic control were associated with being present biased. These relationships hold when subject to a number of control measures. So it looks as if present bias explains at least part of the variation in self-management and health outcomes for people with diabetes. Clearly, the selection of the small sample is a bit of a concern. It may have meant that people with particular risk preferences (given that the reward was a lottery) were excluded, and so the sample might not be representative. Nevertheless, it seems that at least some people with diabetes could benefit from interventions that increase the salience of future health-related payoffs associated with self-management.

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Thesis Thursday: Miqdad Asaria

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Miqdad Asaria who graduated with a PhD from the University of York. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
The economics of health inequality in the English National Health Service
Supervisors
Richard Cookson, Tim Doran
Repository link
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16189

What types of inequality are relevant in the context of the NHS?

For me the inequalities that really matter are the inequalities in health outcomes, in the English context it is particularly the socioeconomic patterning of these inequalities that is of concern. The focus of health policy in England over the last 200 years has been on improving the average health of the population as well as on providing financial risk protection against catastrophic health expenditure. Whilst great strides have been made in improving average population health through various pioneering interventions including the establishment of the NHS, health inequality has in fact consistently widened over this period. Recent research suggests that in terms of quality-adjusted life expectancy the gap between people living in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods in the country as compared to those living in the most affluent fifth is now approximately 11 quality-adjusted life years.

However, these socio-economic inequalities in health typically accumulate across the life course and there is a limited amount that health care on its own can do to prevent these gaps from widening or indeed to close these gaps once they emerge. This is why health systems including the NHS typically focus on measuring and tackling the inequalities that they can influence even though eliminating such inequalities can have at best only modest impacts on reducing health inequality overall. These comprise of inequalities in access to and quality of healthcare as well as inequality of those health outcomes specifically amenable to healthcare.

What were the key methods and data that you used to identify levels of health inequality?

I am currently working on a project with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India and it is really making me appreciate the amazingly detailed and comprehensive administrative datasets available to researchers in England. For the work underpinning my thesis I linked 10 years of data looking at every hospital admission and outpatient visit in the country with the quality and outcomes achieved for patients registered at each primary care practice, the number of doctors working at each primary care practice, general population census data, cause-specific mortality data, hospital cost data and deprivation data all at neighbourhood level. I spent a lot of time assembling, cleaning and linking these data sets and then used this data platform to build a range of health inequality indicators – some of which can be seen in an interactive tool I built to present the data to clinical commissioning groups.

As well as measuring inequality retrospectively in order to provide evidence to evaluate past NHS policies, and building tools to enable the NHS to monitor inequality going forward, another key focus of my thesis was to develop methods to model and incorporate health inequality impacts into cost-effectiveness analysis. These methods allow analysts to evaluate proposed health interventions in terms of their impact on the distribution of health rather than just their impact on the mythical average citizen. The distributional cost-effectiveness analysis framework I developed is based on the idea of using social welfare functions to evaluate the estimated health distributions arising from the rollout of different health care interventions and compute the equity-efficiency trade-offs that would need to be made in order to prefer one intervention over another. A key parameter in this analysis required in order to make equity-efficiency trade-offs is the level of health inequality aversion. This parameter was quite tricky to estimate with methods used to elicit it from the general public being prone to various framing effects. The preliminary estimates that I used in my analysis for this parameter suggested that at the margin the general public thought people living in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods in the country deserve approximately 7 times the priority in terms of health care spending as those who live in the most affluent fifth of neighbourhoods.

Does your PhD work enable us to attach a ‘cost’ to inequality, and ‘value’ to policies that reduce it?

As budding economists, we are ever cautious to distinguish association and causation. My thesis starts by estimating the cost associated with inequality to the NHS. That is the additional cost to the NHS spent on treating the excess morbidity in those living in relatively deprived neighbourhoods. I estimated the difference between the actual NHS hospital budget and what the cost would have been if everybody in the country had the morbidity profile of those who live in just the most affluent fifth of neighbourhoods. For inpatient hospital costs this difference came to £4.8 billion per year and widening this to all NHS costs this came to £12.5 billion per year approximately a fifth of the total NHS budget. I looked both cross-sectionally and also modelled lifetime estimated health care use and found that even over their entire lifetimes people living in more deprived neighbourhoods consumed more health care despite their substantially shorter life expectancies.

This cost is of course very different to the value of policies to reduce inequality. This difference arises for two main reasons. First, my estimates were not causal but rather associations so we are unable to conclude that reducing socioeconomic inequality would actually result in everybody in the country gaining the morbidity profile of those living in the most affluent fifth of neighbourhoods. Second and perhaps more significantly, my estimates do not value any of the health benefits that would result from reducing health inequality they just count the costs that could be saved by the NHS due to the excess morbidity avoided. The value of these health benefits forgone in terms of quality adjusted life years gained would have to be converted into monetary terms using an estimate of willingness to pay for health and added to these cost savings (which themselves would need to be converted to consumption values) to get a total value of reducing inequality from a health perspective. There would also, of course, be a range of non-health impacts of reducing inequality that would need to be accounted for if this exercise were to be comprehensively conducted.

In simple terms, if the causal link between socioeconomic inequality and health could be determined then the value to the health sector of policies that could substantially reduce this inequality would likely be far greater than the costs quoted here.

How did you find the PhD-by-publication route? Would you recommend it?

I came to academia relatively late having previously worked in both the government and the private sector for a number of years. The PhD by publication route suited me well as it allowed me to get stuck into a number of projects, work with a wide range of academics and build an academic career whilst simultaneously curating a set of papers to submit as a thesis. However, it is certainly not the fastest way to achieve PhD status, my thesis took 6 years to compile. The publication route is also still relatively uncommon in England and I found both my supervisors and examiners somewhat perplexed about how to approach it. Additionally, my wife who did her PhD by the traditional route assures me that it is not a ‘proper’ PhD!

For those fresh out of an MSc programme the traditional route probably works well, giving you the opportunity to develop research skills and focus on one area in depth with lots of guidance from a dedicated supervisor. However, for people like me who probably would never have got around to doing a traditional PhD, it is nice that there is an alternative way to acquire the ‘Dr’ title which I am finding confers many unanticipated benefits.

What advice would you give to a researcher looking to study health inequality?

The most important thing that I have learnt from my research is that health inequality, particularly in England, has very little to do with health care and everything to do with socioeconomic inequality. I would encourage researchers interested in this area to look at broader interventions tackling the social determinants of health. There is lots of exciting work going on at the moment around basic income and social housing as well as around the intersection between the environment and health which I would love to get stuck into given the chance.