Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 6th March 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.

It’s good to be first: order bias in reading and citing NBER working papers. The Review of Economics and Statistics [RePEcPublished 23rd February 2017

Each week one of the authors at this blog choose three or four recently published studies to summarise and briefly discuss. Making this choice from the many thousands of articles published every week can be difficult. I browse those journals that publish in my area and search recently published economics papers on PubMed and Econlit for titles that pique my interest. But this strategy is not without its own flaws as this study aptly demonstrates. When making a choice among many alternatives, people aren’t typically presented with a set of choices, rather a list. This arises in healthcare as well. In an effort to promote competition, at least in the UK, patients are presented with a list of possible of providers and some basic information about those providers. We recently covered a paper that explored this expansion of choice ‘sets’ and investigated its effects on quality. We have previously criticised the use of such lists. People often skim these lists relying on simple heuristics to make choices. This article shows that for the weekly email of new papers published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), being listed first leads to an increase of approximately 30% in downloads and citations, despite the essentially random ordering of the list. This is certainly not the first study to illustrate the biases in human decision making, but it shows that this journal round-up may not be a fair reflection of the literature, and providing more information about healthcare providers may not have the impact on quality that might be hypothesised.

Economic conditions, illicit drug use, and substance use disorders in the United States. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published March 2017

We have featured a large number of papers about the relationship between macroeconomic conditions and health and health-related behaviours on this blog. It is certainly one of the health economic issues du jour and one we have discussed in detail. Generally speaking, when looking at an aggregate level, such as countries or states, all-cause mortality appears to be pro-cyclical: it declines in economic downturns. Whereas an examination at individual or household levels suggest unemployment and reduced income is generally bad for health. It is certainly possible to reconcile these two effects as any discussion of Simpson’s paradox will reveal. This study takes the aggregate approach to looking at US state-level unemployment rates and their relationship with drug use. It’s relevant to the discussion around economic conditions and health; the US has seen soaring rates of opiate-related deaths recently, although whether this is linked to the prevailing economic conditions remains to be seen. Unfortunately, this paper predicates a lot of its discussion about whether there is an effect on whether there was statistical significance, a gripe we’ve contended with previously. And there are no corrections for multiple comparisons, despite the well over 100 hypothesis tests that are conducted. That aside, the authors conclude that the evidence suggests that use of ecstasy and heroin is procyclical with respect to unemployment (i.e increase with greater unemployment) and LSD, crack cocaine, and cocaine use is counter-cyclical. The results appear robust to the model specifications they compare, but I find it hard to reconcile some of the findings with the prior information about how people actually consume drugs. Many drugs are substitutes and/or compliments for one another. For example, many heroin users began using opiates through abuse of prescription drugs such as oxycodone but made the switch as heroin is generally much cheaper. Alcohol and marijuana have been shown to be substitutes for one another. All of this suggesting a lack of independence between the different outcomes considered. People may also lose their job because of drug use. Taken all together I remain a little sceptical of the conclusions from the study, but it is nevertheless an interesting and timely piece of research.

Child-to-adult neurodevelopmental and mental health trajectories after early life deprivation: the young adult follow-up of the longitudinal English and Romanian Adoptees study. The Lancet [PubMedPublished 22nd February 2017

Does early life deprivation lead to later life mental health issues? A question that is difficult to answer with observational data. Children from deprived backgrounds may be predisposed to mental health issues, perhaps through familial inheritance. To attempt to discern whether deprivation in early life is a cause of mental health issues this paper uses data derived from a cohort of Romanian children who spent time in one of the terribly deprived institutions of Ceaușescu’s Romania and who were later adopted by British families. These institutions were characterised by poor hygiene, inadequate food, and lack of social or educational stimulation. A cohort of British adoptees was used for comparison. For children who spent more than six months in one of the deprived institutions, there was a large increase in cognitive and social problems in later life compared with either British adoptees or those who spent less than six months in an institution. The evidence is convincing, with differences being displayed across multiple dimensions of mental health, and a clear causal mechanism by which deprivation acts. However, for this and many other studies that I write about on this blog, a disclaimer might be needed when there is significant (pun intended) abuse and misuse of p-values. Ziliak and McClosky’s damning diatribe on p-values, The Cult of Statistical Significance, presents examples of lists of p-values being given completely out of context, with no reference to the model or hypothesis test they are derived from, and with the implication that they represent whether an effect exists or not. This study does just that. I’ll leave you with this extract from the abstract:

Cognitive impairment in the group who spent more than 6 months in an institution remitted from markedly higher rates at ages 6 years (p=0·0001) and 11 years (p=0·0016) compared with UK controls, to normal rates at young adulthood (p=0·76). By contrast, self-rated emotional symptoms showed a late onset pattern with minimal differences versus UK controls at ages 11 years (p=0·0449) and 15 years (p=0·17), and then marked increases by young adulthood (p=0·0005), with similar effects seen for parent ratings. The high deprivation group also had a higher proportion of people with low educational achievement (p=0·0195), unemployment (p=0·0124), and mental health service use (p=0·0120, p=0·0032, and p=0·0003 for use when aged <11 years, 11–14 years, and 15–23 years, respectively) than the UK control group.

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