Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 7th August 2017

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.

Financing transformative health systems towards achievement of the health Sustainable Development Goals: a model for projected resource needs in 67 low-income and middle-income countries. Lancet: Global Health [PubMedPublished 17th July 2017

Achieving universal health coverage is a key aspect of the UN’s sustainable development goals. However, what this means in practice is complicated. People need to be able to access health services free at the point of use, but once those services are accessed there needs to be sufficient labour, capital, skill, and quality to correctly diagnose and treat them. For many health systems worldwide, this will require large investments in infrastructure and staffing, but the potential cost of achieving these goals is unclear. This article sets out to estimate these costs. Clearly, this is a complicated task – health care systems are incredibly complex. From a basic microeconomic standpoint, one might need some understanding of the production function of different health care systems, and the marginal productivity of labour and capital inputs to these systems. There is generally good evidence of what is effective and cost-effective for the treatment of different diseases, and so given the amenable disease burden for a particular country, we could begin to understand what would be required to combat it. This is how this article tackles this question, more or less. They take a bottom-up costing approach to a wide range of interventions, governance requirements, and, where required, other interventions such as water and sanitation. However, there are other mechanisms at play. At national levels, economies of scale and scope play a role. Integration of care programs can reduce the costs, improve the quality, or both, of the individual programs. Similarly, the levels of investment considered are likely to have relevant macroeconomic effects, boosting employment, income, and subsequent socioeconomic indicators. Credit is due to the authors, they do consider financing and health impacts of investment, and their paper is the most comprehensive to date on the topic. However, their projections (~$300 billion annually) are perhaps more uncertain than they let on, a criticism I made of similar papers recently. While I should remind myself not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, detailed case studies of particular countries may help me to see how the spreadsheet model may actually translate into real-world changes.

Precommitment, cash transfers, and timely arrival for birth: evidence from a randomized controlled trial in Nairobi Kenya. American Economic Review [RePEcPublished May 2017

A great proportion of the gains in life expectancy in recent years has been through the reduction of childhood mortality. The early years of life are some of the most precarious. A newborn child, if she survives past five years of age, will not face the same risk of dying until late adulthood. Many of the same risk factors that contribute to childhood mortality also contribute to maternal death rates and many low-income countries still face unacceptably high rates of dying for both mother and child. One way of tackling this is to ensure mothers have access to adequate antenatal and postnatal care. In Kenya, for example, the government legislated to provide free delivery services in government health facilities in 2013. However, Kenya still has some of the highest death rates for mother and child in the world. It is speculated that one reason for this is the delay in receiving services in the case of complications with a pregnancy. A potential cause of this delay in Nairobi is a lack of adequate planning from women who face a large number of heterogeneous treatment options for birth. This study presents an RCT in which pregnant women were offered a “precommitment transfer package”, which consisted of a cash transfer of 1000 KSh (~£7) during pregnancy and a further 1000 KSh if women stuck to a delivery plan they had earlier committed to. The transfer was found to increase the proportion of women arriving early to delivery facilities. The study was a fairly small pilot study and the results somewhat uncertain, but the intervention appears promising. Cost-effectiveness comparisons are warranted with other interventions aiming to achieve the same ends.

Bans on electronic cigarette sales to minors and smoking among high school students. Journal of Health Economics [PubMedPublished July 2017

E-cigarettes have provoked quite a debate among public health researchers and campaigners as we’ve previously discussed. E-cigarettes are a substitute for tobacco smoking and are likely to be significantly less harmful. They may have contributed to large declines in the use of tobacco in the UK in the last few years. However, some have taken a “think of the children!” position. While e-cigarette use per se among adolescents may not be a significant public health issue, it could lead to increased use of tobacco. Others have countered that those young people using e-cigarettes would have been those that used tobacco anyway, so banning e-cigarettes among minors may lead them to go back to the tobacco. This paper takes data from repeated surveys of high school students in the US to estimate the effects of banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors on the prevalence of tobacco smoking. Interestingly, bans appear to reduce tobacco smoking prevalence; the results appear fairly robust and the modelling is sensible. This conflicts with other recent similar studies. The authors argue that this shows that e-cigarettes and tobacco smoking are complements, so reducing one reduces the other. But I am not sure this explains the decline since no increase in youth smoking was observed as e-cigarettes became more popular. Certainly, such a ban would not have reduced smoking prevalence years ago. At the very least e-cigarettes have clearly had a significant effect on attitudes towards smoking. Perhaps smoking was on the decline anyway – but the authors estimate a model with state-specific time trends, and no declines were seen in control states. Whatever our prior beliefs about the efficacy of regulating or banning e-cigarettes, the evidence is complex, reflecting the complex behaviour of people towards drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.



Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 24th July 2017

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.

Ten years after the financial crisis: the long reach of austerity and its global impacts on health. Social Science & Medicine [PubMedPublished 22nd June 2017

The subject of austerity and its impact on health has generated its own subgenre in the academic literature. We have covered a number of papers on these journal round-ups on this topic, which, given the nature of economic papers, are generally quantitative in nature. However, while quantitative studies are necessary for generation of knowledge of the social world, they are not sufficient. At aggregate levels, quantitative studies may often rely on a black box approach. We may reasonably conclude a policy caused a change in some population-level indicator on the basis of a causal inference type paper, but we often need other types of evidence to answer why or how this occurred. A realist philosophy of social science may see this as a process of triangulation; at the very least it’s a process of abduction to develop theory that best explains what we observe. In clinical research, Bradford-Hill’s famous criteria can be used as a heuristic for causal inference: a cause can be attributed to an effect if it demonstrates a number of criteria including dose-response and reproducibility. For social science, we can conceive of a similar set of criteria. Effects must follow causes, there has to be a plausible mechanism, and so forth. This article in Social Science & Medicine introduces a themed issue on austerity and its effects on health. The issue contains a number of papers examining experiences of people with respect to austerity and how these may translate into changes in health. One example is a study in a Mozambican hospital and how health outcomes change in response to continued restructuring programs due to budget shortfalls. Another study explores the narrative of austerity in Guyana and it has long been sold as necessary for future benefits which never actually materialise. It is not immediately clear how austerity is being defined here, but it is presumably something like ‘a fiscal contraction that causes a significant increase in aggregate unemployment‘. In any case, it makes for interesting reading and complements economics research on the topic. It is a refreshing change from the bizarre ravings we featured a couple of weeks ago!

Home-to-home time — measuring what matters to patients and payers. New England Journal of Medicine [PubMedPublished 6th July 2017

Length of hospital stay is often used as a metric to evaluate hospital performance: for a given severity of illness, a shorter length of hospital stay may suggest higher quality care. However, hospitals can of course game these metrics, and they are further complicated by survival bias. Hospitals are further incentivised to reduce length of stay. For example, the move from per diem reimbursement to per episode had the effect of dramatically reducing length of stay in hospitals. As a patient recovers, they may no longer need hospital based care, the care they require may be adequately provided in other institutional settings. Although, in the UK there has been a significant issue with many patients convalescing in hospital for extended periods as they wait for a place in residential care homes. Thus from the perspective of the whole health system, length of stay in hospital may no longer be the right metric to evaluate performance. This article makes this argument and provides some interesting statistics. For example, between 2004 and 2011 the average length of stay in hospital among Medicare beneficiaries in the US decreased from 6.3 to 5.7 days; post-acute care stays increased from 4.8 to 6.0 days. Thus, the total time in care actually increased from 11.1 to 11.7 days over this period. In the post-acute care setting, Medicare still reimburses providers on a per diem basis, so total payments adjusted for inflation also increased. This article makes the argument that we need to structure incentives and reimbursement schemes across the whole care system if we want to ensure efficiency and equity.

The population health benefits of a healthy lifestyle: life expectancy increased and onset of disability delayed. Health Affairs [PubMedPublished July 2017

Obesity and tobacco smoking increase the risk of ill health and in so doing reduce life expectancy. The same goes for alcohol, although the relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of illness is less well understood. One goal of public health policy is to mitigate these risks. One successful way of communicating the risks of different behaviours is as changes to life expectancy, or conversely ‘effective age‘. From a different perspective, understanding how different risk factors affect life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy is important for cost-benefit analyses of different public health interventions. This study estimates life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy associated with smoking, obesity, and moderate alcohol consumption using the US-based Health and Retirement Study. However, I struggle to see how this study adds much; while it communicates its results well, it is, in essence, a series of univariate comparisons followed by a multivariate comparison. This has been done widely before, such as here and here. Nevertheless, the results reinforce those previous studies. For example, obesity reduced disability-free life expectancy by 3 years for men and 6 years for women.


“Economists are the gods of global health.” Richard Horton at it again!

Richard Horton dislikes the economics discipline. That should not come as a shock to anyone. But worse still, this animus appears to arise from a misunderstanding of what economists actually do. Not so long ago, we discussed the fundamental errors in a piece in The Lancet Horton had published. Well, a new tweet from Horton leads us to yet another piece denigrating the economics profession:

The essence of Horton’s latest tirade is that (1) “economists silence the smaller voices of medicine”, (2) economists are responsible for austerity, (3) austerity has had a harmful effect both socially and economically, so that (4) “The task of health professionals is to resist and to oppose the egregious economics of our times.” The implication of the four points being that the influence of economists should be (at least partially) extricated from medicine and medical research. I would agree with point (3) here, as do a large consensus of academic economists (read this post and others from Simon Wren-Lewis for a good summary). But the other points don’t really stand up to close scrutiny.

One of the goals of academic economics is to provide evidence to support an optimal allocation of resources. From a macro perspective this may be the allocative efficiency of spending on different sectors like education and health care. Or, in a context used for much health economic analysis, how to allocate a health care budget fixed by the government through a political decision making process. What is considered ‘optimal’ in each of these circumstances is a normative decision and is, again, a political choice in practice. Perhaps this overlap with politics and economics has confused Horton, who mistakes one for the other with claims like

It is economists we must thank for the modern epidemic of austerity that has engulfed our world. Austerity is the calling card of neoliberalism.

But Horton also claims economics has displaced the “modest discipline of biology” in medicine. So, a reductio ad absurdum argument would have economists doing all the medical research and then implementing all medical and health care policy. Why do we need anyone else?

One can certainly claim this blog post is an apologia for economics. Of course would defend it. But it is true that there are good examples of poor economics and academic overreach. The work of the late Gary Becker was often criticized along these lines; his rational theory of addiction in particular. However, criticisms of the work of economists frequently come from economists themselves. I hope this blog serves as a case in point. More and more, health economists work as members of interdisciplinary teams, where a plurality of approaches, qualitative and quantitative, can aid in making sound inferences and supporting effective policy.

Horton’s views cannot unfortunately be dismissed as the ravings of the uninformed. He occupies an important position in medical research, serving as the editor-in-chief of one of the top medical journals, and his voice is influential. It serves no useful purpose to anyone and undermines the positions he advocates for, which many economists actually agree with, to publish false claims about economics.