Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 24th July 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.

Ten years after the financial crisis: the long reach of austerity and its global impacts on health. Social Science & Medicine [PubMedPublished 22nd June 2017

The subject of austerity and its impact on health has generated its own subgenre in the academic literature. We have covered a number of papers on these journal round-ups on this topic, which, given the nature of economic papers, are generally quantitative in nature. However, while quantitative studies are necessary for generation of knowledge of the social world, they are not sufficient. At aggregate levels, quantitative studies may often rely on a black box approach. We may reasonably conclude a policy caused a change in some population-level indicator on the basis of a causal inference type paper, but we often need other types of evidence to answer why or how this occurred. A realist philosophy of social science may see this as a process of triangulation; at the very least it’s a process of abduction to develop theory that best explains what we observe. In clinical research, Bradford-Hill’s famous criteria can be used as a heuristic for causal inference: a cause can be attributed to an effect if it demonstrates a number of criteria including dose-response and reproducibility. For social science, we can conceive of a similar set of criteria. Effects must follow causes, there has to be a plausible mechanism, and so forth. This article in Social Science & Medicine introduces a themed issue on austerity and its effects on health. The issue contains a number of papers examining experiences of people with respect to austerity and how these may translate into changes in health. One example is a study in a Mozambican hospital and how health outcomes change in response to continued restructuring programs due to budget shortfalls. Another study explores the narrative of austerity in Guyana and it has long been sold as necessary for future benefits which never actually materialise. It is not immediately clear how austerity is being defined here, but it is presumably something like ‘a fiscal contraction that causes a significant increase in aggregate unemployment‘. In any case, it makes for interesting reading and complements economics research on the topic. It is a refreshing change from the bizarre ravings we featured a couple of weeks ago!

Home-to-home time — measuring what matters to patients and payers. New England Journal of Medicine [PubMedPublished 6th July 2017

Length of hospital stay is often used as a metric to evaluate hospital performance: for a given severity of illness, a shorter length of hospital stay may suggest higher quality care. However, hospitals can of course game these metrics, and they are further complicated by survival bias. Hospitals are further incentivised to reduce length of stay. For example, the move from per diem reimbursement to per episode had the effect of dramatically reducing length of stay in hospitals. As a patient recovers, they may no longer need hospital based care, the care they require may be adequately provided in other institutional settings. Although, in the UK there has been a significant issue with many patients convalescing in hospital for extended periods as they wait for a place in residential care homes. Thus from the perspective of the whole health system, length of stay in hospital may no longer be the right metric to evaluate performance. This article makes this argument and provides some interesting statistics. For example, between 2004 and 2011 the average length of stay in hospital among Medicare beneficiaries in the US decreased from 6.3 to 5.7 days; post-acute care stays increased from 4.8 to 6.0 days. Thus, the total time in care actually increased from 11.1 to 11.7 days over this period. In the post-acute care setting, Medicare still reimburses providers on a per diem basis, so total payments adjusted for inflation also increased. This article makes the argument that we need to structure incentives and reimbursement schemes across the whole care system if we want to ensure efficiency and equity.

The population health benefits of a healthy lifestyle: life expectancy increased and onset of disability delayed. Health Affairs [PubMedPublished July 2017

Obesity and tobacco smoking increase the risk of ill health and in so doing reduce life expectancy. The same goes for alcohol, although the relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of illness is less well understood. One goal of public health policy is to mitigate these risks. One successful way of communicating the risks of different behaviours is as changes to life expectancy, or conversely ‘effective age‘. From a different perspective, understanding how different risk factors affect life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy is important for cost-benefit analyses of different public health interventions. This study estimates life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy associated with smoking, obesity, and moderate alcohol consumption using the US-based Health and Retirement Study. However, I struggle to see how this study adds much; while it communicates its results well, it is, in essence, a series of univariate comparisons followed by a multivariate comparison. This has been done widely before, such as here and here. Nevertheless, the results reinforce those previous studies. For example, obesity reduced disability-free life expectancy by 3 years for men and 6 years for women.

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