Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 14th January 2019

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.

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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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