Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 3rd December 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.

A framework for conducting economic evaluations alongside natural experiments. Social Science & Medicine Published 27th November 2018

I feel like Social Science & Medicine is publishing some excellent health economics papers lately and this is another example. Natural experiment methods, like instrumental variables, difference in difference, and propensity matching, are increasingly used to evaluate public health policy interventions. This paper provides a review and a framework for how to incorporate economic evaluation alongside this. And even better, it has a checklist! It goes into some detail in describing each item in the checklist which I think will be really useful. A couple of the items seemed a bit peculiar to me, like talking about “Potential behavioural responses (e.g. ‘nudge effects’)” – I would prefer a more general term like causal mechanism. And it has multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) as a potential method. I love MCDA but I think that using MCDA would surely require a whole new set of items on the checklist, for instance, to record how MCDA weights have been decided. (For me, saying that CEA is insufficient so we should use MCDA instead is like saying I find it hard to put IKEA furniture together so I will make my own furniture from scratch.) My hope with checklists is that they actually improve practice, rather than just being used in a post hoc way to include a few caveats and excuses in papers.

Autonomy, accountability, and ambiguity in arm’s-length meta-governance: the case of NHS England. Public Management Review Published 18th November 2018

It has been said that NICE in England serves a purpose of insulating politicians from the fallout of difficult investment decisions, for example recommending that people with mild Alzheimers disease do not get certain drugs. When the coalition government gained power in the UK in 2010, there was initially talk that NICE’s role of approving drugs may be reduced. But the government may have realised that NICE serve a useful role of being a focus of public and media anger when new drugs are rejected on cost-effectiveness grounds. And so it may be with NHS England (NHSE), which according to this paper, as an arms-length body (ALB), has powers that exceed what was initially planned.

This paper uses meta-governance theory, examining different types of control mechanisms and the relationship between the ALB and the sponsor (Department for Health and Social Care), and how they impact on autonomy and accountability. It suggests that NHSE is operating at a macro, policy-making level, rather than an operational, implementation level. Policy changes from NHSE are presented by ministers as coming ‘from’ the NHS but, in reality, the NHS is much bigger than NHSE. NHSE was created to take political interference out of decision-making and let civil servants get on with things. But before reading this paper, it had not occurred to me how much power NHSE had accrued, and how this may create difficulties in terms of accountability for reasonableness. For instance, NHSE have a very complicated structure and do not publish all of their meeting minutes so it is difficult to understand how investment decisions are made. It may be that the changes that have happened in the NHS since 2012 were intended to involve healthcare professionals more in local investment decisions. But actually, a lot of power in terms of shaping the balance of hierarchies, markets and networks has ended up in NHSE, sitting in a hinterland between politicians in Whitehall and local NHS organisations. With a new NHS Plan reportedly delayed because of Brexit chaos, it will be interesting to see what this plan says about accountability.

How health policy shapes healthcare sector productivity? Evidence from Italy and UK. Health Policy [PubMed] Published 2nd November 2018

This paper starts with an interesting premise: the English and Italian state healthcare systems (the NHS and the SSN) are quite similar (which I didn’t know before). But the two systems have had different priorities in the time period from 2004-2011. England focused on increasing activity, reducing waiting times and quality improvements while Italy focused on reducing hospital beds as well as reducing variation and unnecessary treatments. This paper finds that productivity increased more quickly in the NHS than the SSN from 2004-2011. This paper is ambitious in its scope and the data the authors have used. The model uses input-specific price deflators, so it includes the fact that healthcare inputs increase in price faster than other industries but treats this as exogenous to the production function. This price inflation may be because around 75% of costs are staff costs, and wage inflation in other industries produces wage inflation in the NHS. It may be interesting in future to analyse to what extent the rate of inflation for healthcare is inevitable and if it is linked in some way to the inputs and outputs. We often hear that productivity in the NHS has not increased as much as other industries, so it is perhaps reassuring to read a paper that says the NHS has performed better than a similar health system elsewhere.

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