Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 15th January 2018

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.

Cost-effectiveness of publicly funded treatment of opioid use disorder in California. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd January 2018

Deaths from opiate overdose have soared in the United States in recent years. In 2016, 64,000 people died this way, up from 16,000 in 2010 and 4,000 in 1999. The causes of public health crises like this are multifaceted, but we can identify two key issues that have contributed more than any other. Firstly, medical practitioners have been prescribing opiates irresponsibly for years. For the last ten years, well over 200,000,000 opiate prescriptions were issued per year in the US – enough for seven in every ten people. Once prescribed, opiate use is often not well managed. Prescriptions can be stopped abruptly, for example, leaving people with unexpected withdrawal syndromes and rebound pain. It is estimated that 75% of heroin users in the US began by using legal, prescription opiates. Secondly, drug suppliers have started cutting heroin with its far stronger but cheaper cousin, fentanyl. Given fentanyl’s strength, only a tiny amount is required to achieve the same effects as heroin, but the lack of pharmaceutical knowledge and equipment means it is often not measured or mixed appropriately into what is sold as ‘heroin’. There are two clear routes to alleviating the epidemic of opiate overdose: prevention, by ensuring responsible medical use of opiates, and ‘cure’, either by ensuring the quality and strength of heroin, or providing a means to stop opiate use. The former ‘cure’ is politically infeasible so it falls on the latter to help those already habitually using opiates. However, the availability of opiate treatment programs, such as opiate agonist treatment (OAT), is lacklustre in the US. OAT provides non-narcotic opiates, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to prevent withdrawal syndromes in users, from which they can slowly be weaned. This article looks at the cost-effectiveness of providing OAT for all persons seeking treatment for opiate use in California for an unlimited period versus standard care, which only provides OAT to those who have failed supervised withdrawal twice, and only for 21 days. The paper adopts a previously developed semi-Markov cohort model that includes states for treatment, relapse, incarceration, and abstinence. Transition probabilities for the new OAT treatment were determined from treatment data for current OAT patients (as far as I understand it). Although this does raise the question about the generalisability of this population to the whole population of opiate users – given the need to have already been through two supervised withdrawals, this population may have a greater motivation to quit, for example. In any case, the article estimates that the OAT program would be cost-saving, through reductions in crime and incarceration, and improve population health, by reducing the risk of death. Taken at face value these results seem highly plausible. But, as we’ve discussed before, drug policy rarely seems to be evidence-based.

The impact of aid on health outcomes in Uganda. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 22nd December 2017

Examining the response of population health outcomes to changes in health care expenditure has been the subject of a large and growing number of studies. One reason is to estimate a supply-side cost-effectiveness threshold: the health returns the health service achieves in response to budget expansions or contractions. Similarly, we might want to know the returns to particular types of health care expenditure. For example, there remains a debate about the effectiveness of aid spending in low and middle-income country (LMIC) settings. Aid spending may fail to be effective for reasons such as resource leakage, failure to target the right population, poor design and implementation, and crowding out of other public sector investment. Looking at these questions at an aggregate level can be tricky; the link between expenditure or expenditure decisions and health outcomes is long and causality flows in multiple directions. Effects are likely to therefore be small and noisy and require strong theoretical foundations to interpret. This article takes a different, and innovative, approach to looking at this question. In essence, the analysis boils down to a longitudinal comparison of those who live near large, aid funded health projects with those who don’t. The expectation is that the benefit of any aid spending will be felt most acutely by those who live nearest to actual health care facilities that come about as a result of it. Indeed, this is shown by the results – proximity to an aid project reduced disease prevalence and work days lost to ill health with greater effects observed closer to the project. However, one way of considering the ‘usefulness’ of this evidence is how it can be used to improve policymaking. One way is in understanding the returns to investment or over what area these projects have an impact. The latter is covered in the paper to some extent, but the former is hard to infer. A useful next step may be to try to quantify what kind of benefit aid dollars produce and its heterogeneity thereof.

The impact of social expenditure on health inequalities in Europe. Social Science & Medicine Published 11th January 2018

Let us consider for a moment how we might explore empirically whether social expenditure (e.g. unemployment support, child support, housing support, etc) affects health inequalities. First, we establish a measure of health inequality. We need a proxy measure of health – this study uses self-rated health and self-rated difficulty in daily living – and then compare these outcomes along some relevant measure of socioeconomic status (SES) – in this study they use level of education and a compound measure of occupation, income, and education (the ISEI). So far, so good. Data on levels of social expenditure are available in Europe and are used here, but oddly these data are converted to a percentage of GDP. The trouble with doing this is that this variable can change if social expenditure changes or if GDP changes. During the financial crisis, for example, social expenditure shot up as a proportion of GDP, which likely had very different effects on health and inequality than when social expenditure increased as a proportion of GDP due to a policy change under the Labour government. This variable also likely has little relationship to the level of support received per eligible person. Anyway, at the crudest level, we can then consider how the relationship between SES and health is affected by social spending. A more nuanced approach might consider who the recipients of social expenditure are and how they stand on our measure of SES, but I digress. In the article, the baseline category for education is those with only primary education or less, which seems like an odd category to compare to since in Europe I would imagine this is a very small proportion of people given compulsory schooling ages unless, of course, they are children. But including children in the sample would be an odd choice here since they don’t personally receive social assistance and are difficult to compare to adults. However, there are no descriptive statistics in the paper so we don’t know and no comparisons are made between other groups. Indeed, the estimates of the intercepts in the models are very noisy and variable for no obvious reason other than perhaps the reference group is very small. Despite the problems outlined so far though, there is a potentially more serious one. The article uses a logistic regression model, which is perfectly justifiable given the binary or ordinal nature of the outcomes. However, the authors justify the conclusion that “Results show that health inequalities measured by education are lower in countries where social expenditure is higher” by demonstrating that the odds ratio for reporting a poor health outcome in the groups with greater than primary education, compared to primary education or less, is smaller in magnitude when social expenditure as a proportion of GDP is higher. But the conclusion does not follow from the premise. It is entirely possible for these odds ratios to change without any change in the variance of the underlying distribution of health, the relative ordering of people, or the absolute difference in health between categories, simply by shifting the whole distribution up or down. For example, if the proportions of people in two groups reporting a negative outcome are 0.3 and 0.4, which then change to 0.2 and 0.3 respectively, then the odds ratio comparing the two groups changes from 0.64 to 0.58. The difference between them remains 0.1. No calculations are made regarding absolute effects in the paper though. GDP is also shown to have a positive effect on health outcomes. All that might have been shown is that the relative difference in health outcomes between those with primary education or less and others changes as GDP changes because everyone is getting healthier. The question of the article is interesting, it’s a shame about the execution.

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