Thesis Thursday: Feng-An Yang

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Feng-An Yang who has a PhD from Ohio State University. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Three essays on access to health care in rural areas
Supervisors
Daeho Kim, Joyce Chen
Repository link
http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=osu152353045188255

What are the policy challenges for rural hospitals in the US?

Rural hospitals have been financially vulnerable, especially after the implementation of Medicare Prospective Payment System (PPS) in 1983, under which hospitals receive a predetermined, fixed reimbursement for their inpatient services. Under the PPS, they suffer from financial losses as their costs tend to exceed the reimbursement rate due to their smaller size and lower patient volume than their urban counterparts (Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, 2001 [PDF]). As a result, a noticeable number of rural hospitals have closed since the implementation of PPS (Congressional Budget Office, 1991 [PDF]).

This closure trend has slowed down thanks to public payment policies such as the Critical Access Hospitals (CAH) program, but rural hospitals are continuing to close their doors and a total of 107 rural hospitals have closed from 2010 to present according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. This issue has raised public concern for rural residents’ access to health services and health status, and how to keep rural hospitals open has become an important policy priority.

Which data sources and models did you use to identify key events?

My dissertation investigated the impact of the CAH program and hospital closure by compiling data from various sources. The primary data come from the Medicare cost report, which contains detailed financial statements for nearly every U.S. hospital. Historical data on health care utilization at the county-level are obtained from the Area Health Resource File. County-level mortality rates are calculated from the national mortality files. Lastly, the list of CAHs and closed hospitals is obtained from the Flex Monitoring Team and American Hospital Association Annual Survey, respectively. This list contains information on the hospital identifier and year of event which is key to my empirical strategy.

To identify the impact of key events (i.e., CAH conversion and hospital closure), I use an event-study approach exploiting the variation in the timing of events. This approach estimates the changes in outcome for the time relative to the ‘event time’. A primary advantage of this approach is that it allows a visual examination of the evolution of changes in outcome before and after the event.

How can policies relating to rural hospitals benefit patients?

This question is not trivial because public payment policies are not directly linked to patients. The primary objective of these policies is to strengthen rural hospitals’ financial viability by providing them with enhanced reimbursement. As a result, it has been expected that, under these policies, rural hospitals will improve their financial conditions and stay open, thereby maintaining the access to health services for rural residents. Broadly speaking, public payment policies can lead to an increase in accessibility if we compare patient access to health services between counties with at least one hospital receiving financial support and counties without any hospitals receiving financial support.

I look at patient benefits from three aspects: accessibility, health care utilization, and mortality. My research shows that the CAH program has substantially improved CAHs’ financial conditions and as a result, some CAHs that otherwise would have been closed have stayed open. This in turn leads to an increase in rural residents’ access to and use of health services. We then provide suggestive evidence that the increased access to and use of health care services have improved patient health in rural areas.

Did you find any evidence that policies could have negative or unexpected consequences?

Certainly. The second chapter of my dissertation focused on skilled nursing care which can be provided in either swing beds (inpatient beds that can be used interchangeably for inpatient care or skilled nursing care) or hospital-based skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). Since the services provided in swing beds and SNFs are equivalent, differential payments, if present, may encourage hospitals to use one over the other.

While the CAH program provides enhanced reimbursement to rural hospitals, it also changes the swing bed reimbursement method such that swing bed payments are more favorable than SNF payments. As a result, CAHs may have a financial incentive to increase the use of swing beds over SNFs. By focusing on CAHs with a SNF, my research shows a remarkable increase in swing bed utilization and this increase is fully offset by the decrease in SNF utilization. These results suggest that CAHs substitute swing beds for SNFs in response to the change in swing bed reimbursement method.

Based on your research, what would be your key recommendations for policymakers?

Based on my research findings, I would make two recommendations for policymakers.

First, my research speaks to the ongoing debate over the elimination of CAH designation for certain hospitals. Loss of CAH designation could have serious financial consequences and subsequently have potentially adverse impacts on patient access to and use of health care. Therefore, I would recommend policymakers to maintain the CAH designation.

Second, while the CAH program has improved rural hospitals’ financial conditions, it has also created a financial incentive for hospitals to use the service with a higher reimbursement rate. Thus, my recommendation to policymakers would be to consider potentially substitutable health care services when designing reimbursement rates.

Thesis Thursday: Rebecca Addo

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Rebecca Addo who has a PhD from the University of Technology Sydney. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
The feasibility of health technology assessment (HTA) in the Ghanaian health system
Supervisors
Jane Hall, Stephen Goodall, Marion Haas
Repository link
http://hdl.handle.net/10453/133353

Why is now the right time to research the feasibility of HTA in Ghana?

In recent years, Ghana has been struggling to financially sustain the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), through which it aims to attain universal health coverage (UHC). As a result, a number of payment methods have been explored, including capitation, but costs to the NHIS continue to escalate. The search for a more efficient NHIS funding resulted in stakeholders visiting the then NICE International, learnt of HTA, and expressed an interest in pursuing it. This interest was strengthened by the World Health Organization 2014 resolution, which encouraged its member states to adopt health interventions and technology assessments in support of UHC. In 2016, a pilot HTA study was conducted with support from international bodies that demonstrated potential cost savings with HTA. Subsequently, the Ghana National Medicines Policy, 2017, made provisions for the use of HTA in the selection of medicines. What remains uncertain is how the policy will be implemented, considering that the limited use of HTA in developing countries has been attributed to a lack of human capacity to undertake it, quality data, and limited resources to support it. With Ghana making progress towards the formal adoption of HTA for health decision-making, it is important to examine its feasibility considering the available national capacity and the health system’s particular characteristics, and to make recommendations on how Ghana can proceed, so that the anticipated positive changes can be realised.

What determines ‘feasibility’ in this context?

The usefulness of HTA to any health system is highly dependent on its availability, the quality of assessment, and the human capacity to conduct country specific appraisals. Thus ‘feasibility’ in this context is determined by the existing health resources and systems that could support the adoption and use of HTA in Ghana. Health resources include human capacity with the needed technical skills to conduct and contribute to HTA, funding for the HTA processes, and the available data, which is of good quality and easily accessible. In addition, potential users of HTA should have knowledge in HTA and be able to interpret its findings. Without these building blocks, HTA in itself cannot be successfully used in Ghana. The systems to consider are health system characteristics such as existing health decision-making processes, and political and social structures. Knowledge of this would aid with planning, design, and introduction of an HTA process that suits the Ghanaian health system’s decision-making context, which would promote its use.

How is HTA perceived by stakeholders in Ghana?

Whilst the majority of Ghanaian stakeholders who participated in my study understood HTA as a decision making tool, others saw it as using technologies such as telemedicine and mobile phone devices for healthcare delivery. Their prior understanding of HTA and its uses drove these differences. In terms of its potential use in the Ghanaian health system, most stakeholders acknowledged the benefits the health system stood to gain should HTA be adopted. They however perceived some barriers to the successful implementation of HTA and made some recommendations to address them. Perceived barriers included lack of knowledge of HTA by potential users, lack of human resource capacity to conduct it, lack of funds to support the conduct, and existing ways of making decisions. Factors perceived to promote HTA use were allocating funds for HTA activities, educating stakeholders on HTA and involving them in the planning, and introduction of HTA for health decision-making in Ghana. Also, stakeholders recommended that data be collated and managed for HTA, and for local Ghanaians to be trained to conduct HTA but rely on experts from other countries where possible.

Was it especially challenging to conduct an economic evaluation in the Ghanaian context?

Yes. Conducting a Ghanaian specific economic evaluation was very challenging, especially, in getting the appropriate data. There were no country-specific utility and clinical efficacy data, hence, I had to rely on data from elsewhere, which needed to the transformed to be context specific. The most challenging aspect was with getting appropriate clinical data due to the differences between clinical trial settings and the Ghanaian setting. Applicability issues that were addressed included differences in clinical treatment algorithm, alternative treatments, and epidemiology of disease. Cultural acceptance of available treatment for the study population also defined the appropriate comparator for the evaluation and consequently the clinical data that could be considered. This resulted in having to draw on data from two separate arms of two clinical trials for one of the models I built for my economic evaluation. To ensure applicability of data from other countries to Ghana, the data identified were transformed to be context specific with data input from Ghana either not available or not easily accessible. Therefore, clinical experts were relied upon for such inputs, adding to the limitations of the economic evaluation.

Can HTA processes from other countries be applied in Ghana?

Every health system is unique in its entirety, therefore processes used in one cannot be adopted and applied to the other. The same applies to HTA in Ghana. As part of my thesis, I reviewed a number of HTA organisations across the world to assess if one could be adopted in Ghana. The review revealed that HTA processes vary with each health system in terms of the context under which they were established, the scope or focus of HTA, outcomes, and links to funding decisions and their uses. The establishment of most of these HTA organisations was driven by country specific needs such as curbing the rising costs of healthcare and reducing variations in the availability of quality treatment and care. The available resources, such as human and data, and the health systems characteristics also influenced the HTA processes. Therefore it is not advisable for Ghana to simply adopt and use a model of HTA process from other countries. Rather, Ghana must pursue a country specific HTA process that is informed by relevant country data.

What would be your recommended ‘next step’ for HTA in Ghana?

Firstly, to ensure the acceptance, use and diffusion of HTA in Ghana, stakeholders of health should be educated on HTA and a legal framework stipulating its focus and conduct, and mandating its use, to be adopted.

Secondly, in the short-to-medium term, Ghana can leverage on ongoing collaborations with other countries and foreign organisations, such as the International Decision Support initiative (IDSi), to develop local capacity for HTA. In the long-term, it will be necessary for policy makers to explore the human resource capacity available for HTA in Ghana to guide the development of a human resource plan for HTA.

Thirdly, Ghana has to develop a country-specific methodological guideline or adapt an existing one for the conduct and reporting of economic evaluation studies in Ghana. Subsequently, guidelines for conducting HTA should be developed.

Lastly, to support HTA conduct, Ghana must create a national data repository including a manual on health resource use and their corresponding unit prices. The creation of an HTA standing panel of clinical experts and other stakeholders who could be relied upon to supply inputs for HTA when needed is also recommended. This is very important in the Ghanaian setting where availability and access to data is limited.

Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 17th June 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.

Mental health: a particular challenge confronting policy makers and economists. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 7th June 2019

This paper has a bad title. You’d never guess that its focus is on the ‘inconsistency of preferences’ expressed by users of mental health services. The idea is that people experiencing certain mental health problems (e.g. depression, conduct disorders, ADHD) may express different preferences during acute episodes. Preference inconsistency, the author explains, can result in failures in prediction (because behaviour may contradict expectations) and failures in evaluation (because… well, this is a bit less clear). Because of preference inconsistency, a standard principal-agent model cannot apply to treatment decisions. Conventional microeconomic theory cannot apply. If this leaves you wondering “so what has this got to do with economists?” then you’re not alone. The author of this article believes that our role is to identify suitable agents who can interpret patients’ inconsistent preferences and make appropriate decisions on their behalf.

But, after introducing this challenge, the framing of the issue seems to change and the discussion becomes about finding an agent who can determine a patient’s “true preferences” from “conflicting statements”. That seems to me to be a bit different from the issue of ‘inconsistent preferences’, and the phrase “true preferences” should raise an eyebrow of any sceptical economist. From here, the author describes some utility models of perfect agency and imperfect agency – the latter taking account of the agent’s opportunity cost of effort. The models include error in judging whether the patient is exhibiting ‘true preferences’ and the strength of the patient’s expression of preference. Five dimensions of preference with respect to treatment are specified: when, what, who, how, and where. Eight candidate agents are specified: family member, lay helper, worker in social psychiatry, family physician, psychiatrist/psychologist, health insurer, government, and police/judge. The knowledge level of each agent in each domain is surmised and related to the precision of estimates for the utility models described. The author argues that certain agents are better at representing a patient’s ‘true preferences’ within certain domains, and that no candidate agent will serve an optimal role in every domain. For instance, family members are likely to be well-placed to make judgements with little error, but they will probably have a higher opportunity cost than care professionals.

The overall conclusion that different agents will be effective in different contexts seems logical, and I support the view of the author that economists should dedicate themselves to better understanding the incentives and behaviours of different agents. But I’m not convinced by the route to that conclusion.

Exploring the impact of adding a respiratory dimension to the EQ-5D-5L. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 16th May 2019

I’m currently working on a project to develop and test EQ-5D bolt-ons for cognition and vision, so I was keen to see the methods reported in this study. The EQ-5D-5L has been shown to have only a weak correlation with clinically-relevant changes in the context of respiratory disease, so it might be worth developing a bolt-on (or multiple bolt-ons) that describe relevant functional changes not captured by the core dimensions of the EQ-5D. In this study, the authors looked at how the inclusion of respiratory dimensions influenced utility values.

Relevant disease-specific outcome measures were reviewed. The researchers also analysed EQ-5D-3L data and disease-specific outcome measure data from three clinical studies in asthma and COPD, to see how much variance in visual analogue scores was explained by disease-specific items. The selection of potential bolt-ons was also informed by principal-component analysis to try to identify which items form constructs distinct from the EQ-5D dimensions. The conclusion of this process was that two other dimensions represented separate constructs and could be good candidates for bolt-ons: ‘limitations in physical activities due to shortness of breath’ and ‘breathing problems’. Some think-aloud interviews were conducted to ensure that the bolt-ons made sense to patients and the general public.

A valuation study using time trade-off and discrete choice experiments was conducted in the Netherlands with a representative sample of 430 people from the general public. The sample was split in two, with each half completing the EQ-5D-5L with one or the other bolt-on. The Dutch EQ-5D-5L valuation study was used as a comparator data set. The inclusion of the bolt-ons seemed to extend the scale of utility values; the best-functioning states were associated with higher utility values when the bolt-ons were added and the worst-functioning states were associated with lower values. This was more pronounced for the ‘breathing problems’ bolt-on. The size of the coefficients on the two bolt-ons (i.e. the effect on utility values) was quite different. The ‘physical activities’ bolt-on had coefficients similar in size to self-care and usual activities. The coefficients on the ‘breathing problems’ bolt-on were a bit larger, comparable in size with those of the mobility dimension.

The authors raise an interesting question in light of their findings from the development process, in which the quantitative analysis supported a ‘symptoms’ dimension and patients indicated the importance of a dimension relating to ‘physical activities’. They ask whether it is more important for an item to be relevant or for it to be quantitatively important for valuation. Conceptually, it seems to me that the apparent added value of a ‘physical activity’ bolt-on is problematic for the EQ-5D. The ‘physical activity’ bolt-on specifies “climbing stairs, going for a walk, carrying things, gardening” as the types of activities it is referring to. Surely, these should be reflected in ‘mobility’ and ‘usual activities’. If they aren’t then I think the ‘usual activities’ descriptor, in particular, is not doing its job. What we might be seeing here, more than anything, is the flaws in the development process for the original EQ-5D descriptors. Namely, that they didn’t give adequate consideration to the people who would be filling them in. Nevertheless, it looks like a ‘breathing problems’ bolt-on could be a useful part of the EuroQol armoury.

Technology and college student mental health: challenges and opportunities. Frontiers in Psychiatry [PubMed] Published 15th April 2019

Universities in the UK and elsewhere are facing growing demand for counselling services from students. That’s probably part of the reason that our Student Mental Health Research Network was funded. Some researchers have attributed this rising demand to the use of personal computing technologies – smartphones, social media, and the like. No doubt, their use is correlated with mental health problems, certainly through time and probably between individuals. But causality is uncertain, and there are plenty of ways in which – as set out in this article – these technologies might be used in a positive way.

Most obviously, smartphones can be a platform for mental health programmes, delivered via apps. This is particularly important because there are perceived and actual barriers for students to accessing face-to-face support. This is an issue for all people with mental health problems. But the opportunity to address this issue using technology is far greater for students, who are hyper-connected. Part of the problem, the authors argue, is that there has not been a focus on implementation, and so the evidence that does exist is from studies with self-selecting samples. Yet the opportunity is great here, too, because students are often co-located with service providers and already engaged with course-related software.

Challenges remain with respect to ethics, privacy, accountability, and duty of care. In the UK, we have the benefit of being able to turn to GDPR for guidance, and universities are well-equipped to assess the suitability of off-the-shelf and bespoke services in terms of their ethical implications. The authors outline some possible ways in which universities can approach implementation and the challenges therein. Adopting these approaches will be crucial if universities are to address the current gap between the supply and demand for services.

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