How important is healthcare for population health?

How important is a population’s access to healthcare as a determinant of population health? I have heard the claim that “as little as 10% of a population’s health is linked to access to healthcare”, or some variant of it, in many places. Some examples include the Health Foundation, the AHRQ, the King’s Fund, the WHO, and determinantsofhealth.org. This claim is appealing: it feels counter-intuitive and it brings to the fore questions of public health and health-related behaviour. But it’s not clear what it means.

I can think of two possible interpretations. One, 10% of the variation in population health outcomes is explained by variation in healthcare access. Or two, access to healthcare leads to a 10% change in population health outcomes compared to no access to healthcare. Both of these claims would be very hard to evaluate empirically. Within many countries, particularly the highest income countries, there is little variation in access to healthcare relative to possible levels of access across the world. Inter-country comparisons would provide a greater range of variation to compare to population outcomes. But even the most sophisticated statistical analysis will struggle to separate out the effects of other economic determinants of health.

It would also be difficult to make sense of any study that purported to estimate the effect of adding or removing healthcare beyond any within-country variation. The labour and capital resource needs of the most sophisticated hospitals are too great for the poorest settings, and it is unlikely that the wealthiest democratic countries could end up with the level of healthcare the world’s poorest face.

But what is the evidence for the claim of 10%? There are a handful of key citations, all of which were summarised at the time in a widely cited article in Health Affairs in 2014. For each of the two ways we could think about the contribution of healthcare above, we would need to look at estimates of the probability of health conditional on different levels of healthcare, Pr(health|healthcare). Each of the references for the 10% figure above in fact provides evidence for the proportion of deaths associated with ‘inadequate’ healthcare, or to put in another way, the probability of having received ‘inadequate’ care given death, Pr(healthcare|health). This is known as transposing the conditional: we have got our conditional probability the wrong way round. Even if we accept mortality rates as an acceptable proxy for population health, the two probabilities are not equal to one another.

Interpretation of this evidence is also complex. Smoking tobacco, for example, would be considered a behavioural determinant of health and deaths caused by it would be attributed to a behavioural cause rather than healthcare. But survival rates for lung cancers have improved dramatically over the last few decades due to improvements in healthcare. While it would be foolish to attribute a death in the past to a lack of access to treatments which had not been invented, contemporary lung cancer deaths in low income settings may well have been prevented by access to better healthcare. Thus using cause-of-death statistics to estimate the contributions of different factors to population health only typically picks up those deaths resulting from medical error or negligence. They are a wholly unreliable guide to the role of healthcare in determining population health.

A study published recently in The Lancet, timed to coincide with a commission on healthcare quality, adopted a different approach. The study aimed to estimate the annual number of deaths worldwide due to a lack of access to high-quality care. To do this they compared the mortality rates of conditions amenable to healthcare intervention around the world with those in the wealthiest nations. Any differences were attributed to either non-utilisation of or lack of access to high-quality care. 15.6 million ‘excess deaths’ were estimated. However, to attribute to these deaths a cause of inadequate healthcare access, one would need to conceive of a counter-factual world in which everyone was treated in the best healthcare systems. This is surely implausible in the extreme. A comparable question might be to ask how many people around the world are dying because their incomes are not as high as those of the top 10% of Americans.

On the normative question, there is little disagreement with the goal of achieving universal health coverage and improving population health. But these dramatic, eye-catching, or counter-intuitive figures do little to support achieving these ends: they can distort policy priorities and create unattainable goals and expectations. Health systems are not built overnight; an incremental approach is needed to ensure sustainability and affordability. Evidence to support this is where great strides are being made both methodologically and empirically, but it is not nearly as exciting as claiming healthcare isn’t very important or that millions of people are dying every year due to poor healthcare access. Healthcare systems are an integral and important part of overall population health; assigning a number to this importance is not.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th November 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.

Alcohol and self-control: a field experiment in India. American Economic Review Forthcoming

Addiction is complex. For many people it is characterised by a need or compulsion to take something, often to prevent withdrawal, often in conflict with a desire to not take it. This conflicts with Gary Becker’s much-maligned rational theory of addiction, which views the addiction as a choice to maximise utility in the long term. Under Becker’s model, one could use market-based mechanisms to end repeated, long-term drug or alcohol use. By making the cost of continuing to use higher then people would choose to stop. This has led to the development of interventions like conditional payment or cost mechanisms: a user would receive a payment on condition of sobriety. Previous studies, however, have found little evidence people would be willing to pay for such sobriety contracts. This article reports a randomised trial among rickshaw drivers in Chennai, India, a group of people with a high prevalence of high alcohol use and dependency. The three trial arms consisted of a control arm who received an unconditional daily payment, a treatment arm who received a small payment plus extra if they passed a breathalyser test, and a third arm who had the choice between either of the two payment mechanisms. Two findings are of much interest. First, the incentive payments significantly increased daytime sobriety, and second, over half the participants preferred the conditional sobriety payments over the unconditional payments when they were weakly dominated, and a third still preferred them even when the unconditional payments were higher than the maximum possible conditional payment. This conflicts with a market-based conception of addiction and its treatment. Indeed, the nature of addiction means it can override all intrinsic motivation to stop, or do anything else frankly. So it makes sense that individuals are willing to pay for extrinsic motivation, which in this case did make a difference.

Heterogeneity in long term health outcomes of migrants within Italy. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 2nd November 2018

We’ve discussed neighbourhood effects a number of times on this blog (here and here, for example). In the absence of a randomised allocation to different neighbourhoods or areas, it is very difficult to discern why people living there or who have moved there might be better or worse off than elsewhere. This article is another neighbourhood effects analysis, this time framed through the lens of immigration. It looks at those who migrated within Italy in the 1970s during a period of large northward population movements. The authors, in essence, identify the average health and mental health of people who moved to different regions conditional on duration spent in origin destinations and a range of other factors. The analysis is conceptually similar to that of two papers we discussed at length on internal migration in the US and labour market outcomes in that it accounts for the duration of ‘exposure’ to poorer areas and differences between destinations. In the case of the labour market outcomes papers, the analysis couldn’t really differentiate between a causal effect of a neighbourhood increasing human capital, differences in labour market conditions, and unobserved heterogeneity between migrating people and families. Now this article examining Italian migration looks at health outcomes, such as the SF-12, which limit the explanations since one cannot ‘earn’ more health by moving elsewhere. Nevertheless, the labour market can still impact upon health strongly.

The authors carefully discuss the difficulties in identifying causal effects here. A number of model extensions are also estimated to try to deal with some issues discussed. This includes a type of propensity score weighting approach, although I would emphasize that this categorically does not deal with issues of unobserved heterogeneity. A finite mixture model is also estimated. Generally a well-thought-through analysis. However, there is a reliance on statistical significance here. I know I do bang on about statistical significance a lot, but it is widely used inappropriately. A rule of thumb I’ve adopted for reviewing papers for journals is that if the conclusions would change if you changed the statistical significance threshold then there’s probably an issue. This article would fail that test. They use a threshold of p<0.10 which seems inappropriate for an analysis with a sample size in the tens of thousands and they build a concluding narrative around what is and isn’t statistically significant. This is not to detract from the analysis, merely its interpretation. In future, this could be helped by banning asterisks in tables, like the AER has done, or better yet developing submission guidelines around its use.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 12th November 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.

Estimating health opportunity costs in low-income and middle-income countries: a novel approach and evidence from cross-country data. BMJ Global Health. Published November 2017.

The relationship between health care expenditure and population health outcomes is a topic that comes up often on this blog. Understanding how population health changes in response to increases or decreases in the health system budget is a reasonable way to set a cost-effectiveness threshold. Purchasing things above this threshold will, on average, displace activity with greater benefits. But identifying this effect is hard. Commonly papers use some kind of instrumental variable method to try to get at the causal effect with aggregate, say country-level, data. These instruments, though, can be controversial. Years ago I tried to articulate why I thought using socio-economic variables as instruments was inappropriate. I also wrote a short paper a few years ago, which remains unpublished, that used international commodity price indexes as an instrument for health spending in Sub-Saharan Africa, where commodity exports are a big driver of national income. This was rejected from a journal because of the choice of instruments. Commodity prices may well influence other things in the country that can influence population health. And a similar critique could be made of this article here, which uses consumption:investment ratios and military expenditure in neighbouring countries as instruments for national health expenditure in low and middle income countries.

I remain unconvinced by these instruments. The paper doesn’t present validity checks on them, which is forgiveable given medical journal word limitations, but does mean it is hard to assess. In any case, consumption:investment ratios change in line with the general macroeconomy – in an economic downturn this should change (assuming savings = investment) as people switch from consumption to investment. There are a multitude of pathways through which this will affect health. Similarly, neighbouring military expenditure would act by displacing own-country health expenditure towards military expenditure. But for many regions of the world, there has been little conflict between neighbours in recent years. And at the very least there would be a lag on this effect. Indeed, in all the models of health expenditure and population health outcomes I’ve seen, barely a handful take into account dynamic effects.

Now, I don’t mean to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I would never have suggested this paper should not be published as it is, at the very least, important for the discussion of health care expenditure and cost-effectiveness. But I don’t feel there is strong enough evidence to accept these as causal estimates. I would even be willing to go as far to say that any mechanism that affects health care expenditure is likely to affect population health by some other means, since health expenditure is typically decided in the context of the broader public sector budget. That’s without considering what happens with private expenditure on health.

Strategic Patient Discharge: The Case of Long-Term Care Hospitals. American Economic Review. [RePEcPublished November 2018.

An important contribution of health economics has been to undermine people’s trust that doctors act in their best interest. Perhaps that’s a little facetious, nevertheless there has been ample demonstration that health care providers will often act in their own self-interest. Often this is due to trying to maximise revenue by gaming reimbursement schemes, but also includes things like doctors acting differently near the end of their shift so they can go home on time. So when I describe a particular reimbursement scheme that Medicare in the US uses, I don’t think there’ll be any doubt about the results of this study of it.

In the US, long-term acute care hospitals (LTCHs) specialise in treating patients with chronic care needs who require extended inpatient stays. Medicare reimbursement typically works on a fixed rate for each of many diagnostic related groups (DRGs), but given the longer and more complex care needs in LTCHs, they get a higher tariff. To discourage admitting patients purely to get higher levels of reimbursement, the bulk of the payment only kicks in after a certain length of stay. Like I said – you can guess what happened.

This article shows 26% of patients are discharged in the three days after the length of stay threshold compared to just 7% in the three days prior. This pattern is most strongly observed in discharges to home, and is not present in patients who die. But this may still be just by chance that the threshold and these discharges coincide. Fortunately for the authors the thresholds differ between DRGs and even move around within a DRG over time in a way that appears unrelated to actual patient health. They therefore estimate a set of decision models for patient discharge to try to estimate the effect of different reimbursement policies.

Estimating misreporting in condom use and its determinants among sex workers: Evidence from the list randomisation method. Health Economics. Published November 2018.

Working on health and health care research, especially if you conduct surveys, means you often want to ask people about sensitive topics. These could include sex and sexuality, bodily function, mood, or other ailments. For example, I work a fair bit on sanitation, where frequently self-reported diarrhoea in under fives (reported by the mother that is) is the primary outcome. This could be poorly reported particularly if an intervention includes any kind of educational component that suggests it could be the mother’s fault for, say, not washing her hands, if the child gets diarrhoea. This article looks at condom use among female sex workers in Senegal, another potentially sensitive topic, since unprotected sex is seen as risky. To try and get at the true prevalence of condom use, the authors use a ‘list randomisation’ method. This randomises survey participants to two sets of questions: a set of non-sensitive statements, or the same set of statements with the sensitive question thrown in. All respondents have to do is report the number of the statements they agree with. This means it is generally not possible to distinguish the response to the sensitive question, but the difference in average number of statements reported between the two groups gives an unbiased estimator for the population proportion. Neat, huh? Ultimately the authors report an estimate of 80% of sex workers using condoms, which compares to the 97% who said they used a condom when asked directly.

 

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