Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 13th November 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.

Scaling for economists: lessons from the non-adherence problem in the medical literature. Journal of Economic Perspectives [RePEcPublished November 2017

It has often been said that development economics has been at the vanguard of the use of randomised trials within economics. Other areas of economics have slowly caught up; the internal validity, and causal interpretation, offered by experimental randomised studies can provide reliable estimates for the effects of particular interventions. Health economics though has perhaps an even longer history with randomised controlled trials (RCTs), and now economic evaluation is often expected alongside clinical trials. RCTs of physician incentives and payments, investment programmes in child health, or treatment provision in schools all feature as other examples. However, even experimental studies can suffer from the same biases in the data analysis process as observational studies. The multiple decisions made in the data analysis and publication stages of research can lead to over-inflated estimates. Beyond that, the experimental conditions of the trial may not pertain in the real world – the study may lack external validity. The medical literature has long recognised this issue, as many as 50% of patients don’t take the medicines prescribed to them by a doctor. As a result, there has been considerable effort to develop an understanding of, and interventions to remedy, the lack of transferability between RCTs and real-world outcomes. This article summarises this literature and develops lessons for economists, who are only just starting to deal with, what they term, ‘the scaling problem’. For example, there are many reasons people don’t respond to incentives as expected: there are psychological costs to switching; people are hyperbolic discounters and often prefer small short-term gains for larger long-term costs; and, people can often fail to understand the implications of sets of complex options. We have also previously discussed the importance of social preferences in decision making. The key point is that, as policy is becoming more and more informed by randomised studies, we need to be careful about over-optimism of effect sizes and start to understand adherence to different policies in the real world. Only then are recommendations reliable.

Estimating the opportunity costs of bed-days. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 6th November 2017

The health economic evaluation of health service delivery interventions is becoming an important issue in health economics. We’ve discussed on many occasions questions surrounding the implementation of seven-day health services in England and Wales, for example. Other service delivery interventions might include changes to staffing levels more generally, medical IT technology, or an incentive to improve hand washing. Key to the evaluation of these interventions is that they are all generally targeted at improving quality of care – that is, to reduce preventable harm. The vast majority of patients who experience some sort of preventable harm do not die but are likely to experience longer lengths of stay in hospital. Consider a person suffering from bed sores or a fall in hospital. Therefore, we need to be able to value those extra bed days to be able to say what the value of improving hospital quality is. Typically we use reference costs or average accounting costs for the opportunity cost of a bed-day, mainly for pragmatic reasons, but also on the assumption that this is equivalent to the value of the second-best alternative foregone. This requires the assumption that health care markets operate properly, which they almost certainly do not. This paper explores the different ways economists have thought about opportunity costs and applies them to the question of the opportunity cost of a hospital bed-day. This includes definitions such as “Net health benefit forgone for the second-best patient‐equivalents”, “Net monetary benefit forgone for the second-best treatment-equivalents”, and “Expenditure incurred + highest net revenue forgone.” The key takeaway is that there is wide variation in the estimated opportunity costs using all the different methods and that, given the assumptions underpinning the most widely used methodologies are unlikely to hold, we may be routinely under- or over-valuing the effects of different interventions.

Universal investment in infants and long-run health: evidence from Denmark’s 1937 Home Visiting Program. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics [RePEcPublished October 2017

We have covered a raft of studies that look at the effects of in-utero health on later life outcomes, the so-called fetal origins hypothesis. A smaller, though by no means small, literature has considered what impact improving infant and childhood health has on later life adult outcomes. While many of these studies consider programmes that occurred decades ago in the US or Europe, their findings are still relevant today as many countries are grappling with high infant and childhood mortality. For many low-income countries, programmes with community health workers – lay-community members provided with some basic public health training – involving home visits, education, and referral services are being widely adopted. This article looks at the later life impacts of an infant health programme, the Home Visiting Program, implemented in Denmark in the 1930s and 40s. The aim of the programme was to provide home visits to every newborn in each district to provide education on feeding and hygiene practices and to monitor infant progress. The programme was implemented in a trial based fashion with different districts adopting the programme at different times and some districts remaining as control districts, although selection into treatment and control was not random. Data were obtained about the health outcomes in the period 1980-2012 of people born 1935-49. In short, the analyses suggest that the programme improved adult longevity and health outcomes, although the effects are small. For example, they estimate the programme reduced hospitalisations by half a day between the age of 45 and 64, and 2 to 6 more people per 1,000 survived past 60 years of age. However, these effect sizes may be large enough to justify what may be a reasonably low-cost programme when scaled across the population.


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