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.
Income distribution and health: can polarization explain health outcomes better than inequality? The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 4th December 2018
One of my main interests is health inequalities. I thought polarisation was intuitive; I had seen it in the context of the UK and the US employment market; an increase in poorly-paid ‘McJobs’ and an increase in well-paid ‘MacJobs’, with fewer jobs in the middle. But I hadn’t seen polarisation measured in a statistical way.
Traditional measures of population inequalities like Gini or Atkinson index measure the share of income or the ratio of richest to poorest. But polarisation goes a step further and looks whether there are discrete clusters or groups who have similar incomes. The theory goes that having discrete groups increases social alienation, conflict and socioeconomic comparison and increases health inequalities. Now, I get how you can test statistically for discrete income clusters, and there is an evidence base for the relationship between polarisation and social tension. But groups will cluster based on other factors besides income. I feel like it may be taking a leap to assume a statistical finding (income polarisation) will always represent a sociological construct (alienation) but I confess I don’t know the literature behind this.
China is a country with an increasing degree of polarisation as measured by the Duclos, Esteban and Ray (DER) polarisation indices, and this study suggests that it is related to health status. This study looked at trends in BMI and systolic blood pressure from 1991 to 2011 and found both to increase with increased polarisation. I imagine a lot of other social change went on in this time period in China. I think BMI might not be a good candidate for measuring the effect of polarisation, as being poor is associated with malnourishment and low weight as well as obesity. The authors found that social capital (based on increasing family size, community size, and living in the same community for a long time) had a protective effect against the effects of polarisation on health. Whether this study provides more evidence for the socioeconomic comparison or status anxiety theories of health inequalities, I am not sure; it could equally provide evidence for the neo-materialist (i.e. simply not having enough resources for a healthy life) theories – the relative importance will likely differ by country anyway.
Maybe we don’t need to add more measures of inequality to the mix but I am intrigued. I am just starting my journey with polarisation but I think it has promise.
Two-year evaluation of mandatory bundled payments for joint replacement. The New England Journal of Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd January 2019
Joint replacements are a big cost to western healthcare systems and often delayed or rationed (partly because replacement joints may only have a 10-20 year lifespan on average). In the UK, for instance, joint replacements have been rationed based on factors like BMI or pain levels (in my opinion, often in an arbitrary way to save money).
This paper found that having a bundled payments and penalties model (Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement; CJR) for optimal care around hip and knee replacements reduced Medicare spending per episode compared to areas that did not pilot the programme. The overall difference was small in absolute terms at $812 against a total cost of around $24,000 per episode. The programme involves the hospital meeting a set of performance measures, and if they can do so at a lower cost, any savings are shared between the hospital and the payer. Cost savings were mainly driven by a reduction in patients being discharged to post-acute care facilities. Rates of complex patients were similar between pilot and control areas – this is important because a lower rate of complex cases in the CJR trial areas might indicate hospitals ‘cherry picking’ easier to treat, less expensive cases. Also, rates of complications were not significantly different between the CJR pilot areas and controls.
This paper suggests that having this kind of bundled payment programme can save money while maintaining quality.
Association of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program with mortality among Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. JAMA [PubMed] Published 25th December 2018
Nobody likes being in hospital. But sometimes hospitals are the best places for people. This paper looks at possible unintended consequences of a US programme; the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) where the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) impose financial penalties (almost $2billion dollars’ worth since 2012) on hospitals with elevated 30-day readmission rates for patients with heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. This study compared four time periods (no control group) and found that, after the programme was implemented, death rates for people who had been admitted with pneumonia and heart failure increased, with these increased deaths occurring more in people who had not been readmitted to hospital. The analysis controlled for differences in demographics, comorbidities, and calendar month using propensity scores and inverse probability weighting.
The authors are clear that their results do not establish cause and effect but are concerning nonetheless and worthy of more analysis. Incidentally, there is another paper this week in Health Affairs which suggests that the benefits of the programme in reducing readmissions was overstated.
There has been a similar financial incentive in the English NHS where hospitals are subject to the 30-day readmission rule, meaning they are not paid for people who are readmitted as an emergency within 30 days of being discharged. This is shortly to be abolished for 2019/20. I wonder if there has been similar research on whether this also led to unintended consequences in the NHS. Maybe there is a general lesson here about thinking a bit deeper about the potential outcomes of incentives in healthcare markets?
In these last two papers, we have had two examples of financial incentive programmes from Medicare. The CJR, which seems to have worked, has been dampened down from a mandatory to a voluntary programme, while the HRRP, which may not have worked, has been extended.