Meeting round-up: International Society for Economics and Social Sciences of Animal Health inaugural meeting

Last week I attended a conference that was very different to any that I’ve attended before. It was the first meeting of a new society – the International Society for Economics and Social Sciences of Animal Health (ISESSAH). I and Prof Marilyn James wanted to get involved with ISESSAH from the get-go in order to start identifying opportunities for collaboration with animal health researchers. In particular, we see the potential for the application of cost-effectiveness analysis methods in the veterinary context. The proceedings of the conference suggested that this is not something that is currently being done.

So off to the Highlands we headed, happily arriving in Aviemore while the town was improbably celebrating being the hottest place in the UK. Aside from my lack of sunglasses and excess of thick jumpers, I did have some intellectual concerns. I was a little worried that there would be few points of commonality between me and the other delegates. A hands-in-the-air poll during the first keynote speech by Tim Carpenter suggested that a minority of people in the room identified primarily as economists. Most people identified as “animal health specialists” and I suspect that most of these people were principally interested in epidemiological questions relating to livestock animals.

Happily, my fears were not realised. The first talk, by Erwin Wauters, discussed the challenge of framing research questions and in particular identifying the context of the decision. This is something we figured out a while ago in health economics and now have the luxury of bickering about health service and societal perspectives for our analyses. But the overlap was striking, as Erwin discussed the proliferation of ‘cost of disease’ studies with limited interpretability. I wondered (aloud, as a question) what the unique challenges might be in defining the context (what we would call perspective) in animal health as opposed to human health. This turned out to be prudent, as numerous delegates approached me over the proceeding 48 hours to tell me what they thought the answer was (euthanasia/culling, market structure, data availability, amongst others).

The whole conference consisted of methods that were familiar. Don’t get me wrong, most (though not all) of the subject matter was alien to me. But that’s par for the course in applied health economics anyway. Many of the studies – and I mean this to be in no way a criticism of those presenting – would strike health economists as analytically rudimentary. There were lots of cost-benefit analyses, plenty of epidemiological models with costs attached (does that make it an economic model?) and a handful of econometric analyses. Some studies (aside from my own poster) were very familiar and referred explicitly to ideas from the health economics field. In particular, Paul Torgerson and colleagues presented a framework that incorporates animal disease burden with DALY estimation. A French group mused on the role of QALYs.

Something consistent across many of the empirical studies was that the decision problems were ill-defined. In the economic evaluation of (human) heath care, we attribute major importance to the adequate definition of the decision problem and the identification and definition of all relevant options for the decision maker. It is perhaps for this reason that – as Jonathan Rushton argued – economics in the animal health context is used more for advocacy than to achieve optimality. Or maybe the causality goes the other way.

There were also lots of sociological and other sub-disciplines of social science represented, with fertile opportunities for interdisciplinary research. I didn’t like the distinction that was made throughout the conference between economics and social science. Economics is a social science. It isn’t bigger or better or distinct. Economists don’t need any encouragement in distancing themselves from sociologists and other social scientists. All of the research (with no exaggeration, though to varying extents) could benefit from health economists’ input. Thanks to our subfield’s softer edges, health economists make for good social science all-rounders. But then I would say that.

There was a discussion of how the conference will operate in the future. As someone who worships at the church of HESG, my instinct was to advise copying it. But that wouldn’t be right in this case (except perhaps for the levy of a nominal membership fee). ISESSAH will need to focus on interdisciplinarity. Delegates had a palpable taste and even excitement for interdisciplinary research. My (previously unknown) Nottingham colleague Marnie Brennan described how she thought the society would do well to adopt a policy of infiltration, to force interdisciplinary engagement, by creating a presence for itself at other conferences. The 2017 meeting took place alongside that of the Society for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine (SVEPM). Hopefully, in the future, we’ll see collaboration with human health research and economics societies and, who knows, maybe even the health economists.

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