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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Alastair Canaway’s journal round-up for 10th 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.

Analytic considerations in applying a general economic evaluation reference case to gene therapy. Value in Health Published 17th May 2019

For fledgling health economists starting in the world of economic evaluation, the NICE reference case is somewhat of a holy text. If in doubt, check the reference case. The concept of a reference case for economic evaluation has been around since the first US Panel on Cost-Effectiveness in Health and Medicine in 1996 and NICE has routinely used its own reference case for well over a decade. The primary purpose of the reference case is to improve the quality and comparability of economic evaluations by standardising methodological practices. There have been arguments made that the same methods are not appropriate for all medical technologies, particularly those in rare diseases or where no treatment currently exists. The focus of this paper is on gene therapy: a novel method that inserts genetic material into cells (as opposed to a drug/surgery) to treat or prevent disease. In this area there has been significant debate as to the appropriateness of the reference case and whether a new reference case is required in this transformative but expensive area. The purpose of the article was to examine the characteristics of gene therapy and make recommendations on changes to the reference case accordingly.

The paper does an excellent job of unpicking the key components of economic evaluation in relation to gene therapy to examine where weaknesses in current reference cases may lie. Rather than recommend that a new reference case be created, they identify specific areas that should be paid special attention when evaluating gene therapy. Additionally, they produce a three part checklist to help analysts to consider what aspects of their economic evaluation they should consider further. For those about to embark on an economic evaluation of a gene therapy intervention, this paper represents an excellent starting point to guide your methodological choices.

Heterogeneous effects of obesity on mental health: evidence from Mexico. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published April 2019

The first line of the ‘summary’ section of this paper caught my eye: “Obesity can spread more easily if it is not perceived negatively”. This stirred up contradictory thoughts. From a public health standpoint we should be doing our utmost to prevent increasing levels of obesity and their related co-morbidities, whilst simultaneously we should be promoting body positivity and well-being for mental health. Is there a tension here? Might promoting body positivity and well-being enable the spread of obesity? This paper doesn’t really answer that question, instead it sought to investigate whether overweight and obesity had differing effects on mental health within different populations groups.

The study is set in Mexico which has the highest rate of obesity in the world with 70% of the population being overweight or obese. Previous research suggests that obesity spreads more easily if not perceived negatively. This paper hypothesises that this effect will be more acute among the poor and middle classes where obesity is more prevalent. The study aimed to reveal the extent of the impact of obesity on well-being whilst controlling for common determinants of well-being by examining the impact of measures of fatness on subjective well-being, allowing for heterogeneous effects across differing groups. The paper focused only on women, who tend to be more affected by excess weight than men (in Mexico at least).

To assess subjective well-being (SWB) the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) was used whilst weight status was measured using waist to height ratio and additionally an obesity dummy. Data was sourced from the Mexican Family and Life Survey and the baseline sample included over 13,000 women. Various econometric models were employed ranging from OLS to instrumental variable estimations, details of which can be found within the paper.

The results supported the hypothesis. They found that there was a negative effect of fatness on well-being for the rich, whilst there was a positive effect for the poor. This has interesting policy implications: policy attempt to reduce obesity may not work if excess weight is not perceived to be an issue. The findings in this study imply that different policy measures are likely necessary for intervening in the wealthy and the poor in Mexico. The paper offers several explanations as to why this relationship may exist, ranging from the poor having lower returns from healthy time (nod to the Grossman model), to differing labour market penalties from fatness due to different job types for the rich and the poor.

Obviously there are limits to the generalisability of these findings, however it does raise interesting questions about how we should seek to prevent obesity within different elements of society, and the unintended consequences that shifts in attitudes may have.

ICECAP-O, the current state of play: a systematic review of studies reporting the psychometric properties and use of the instrument over the decade since its publication. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published June 2019

Those who follow the methodological side of outcome measurement will be familiar with the capability approach, operationalised by the ICECAP suite of measures amongst others. These measures focus on what people are able to do, rather than what they do. It is now 12-13 years since the first ICECAP measure was developed: the ICECAP-O designed for use in older adults. Given the ICECAP measures are now included within the NICE reference case for the economic evaluation of social care, it is a pertinent time to look back over the past decade to assess whether the ICECAP measures are being used and, if so, to what degree and how. This systematic review focusses on the oldest of the ICECAP measures, the ICECAP-O, and examines whether it has been used, and for what purpose as well as summarising the results from psychometric papers.

An appropriate search strategy was deployed within the usual health economic databases, and the PRISMA checklist was used to guide the review. In total 663 papers were identified, of which 51 papers made it through the screening process.

The first 8 years of the ICECAP-O’s life is characterised by an increasing amount of psychometric studies, however in 2014 a reversal occurred. Simultaneously, the number of studies using the ICECAP-O within economic evaluations has slowly increased, surmounting the number examining the psychometric properties, and has increased year-on-year in the three years up to 2018. Overall, the psychometric literature found the ICECAP-O to have good construct validity and generally good content validity with the occasional exception in groups of people with specific medical needs. Although the capability approach has gained prominence, the studies within the review suggest it is still very much seen as a secondary instrument to the EQ-5D and QALY framework, with results typically being brief with little to no discussion or interpretation of the ICECAP-O results.

One of the key limitations to the ICECAP framework to date relates to how economists and decision makers should use the results from the ICECAP instruments. Should capabilities be combined with time (e.g. years in full capability), or should some minimum (sufficient) capability threshold be used? The paper concludes that in the short term, presenting results in terms of ‘years of full capability’ is the best bet, however future research should focus on identifying sufficient capability and establishing monetary thresholds for a year with sufficient capability. Given this, whilst the ICECAP-O has seen increased use over the years, there is still significant work to be done to facilitate decision making and for it to routinely be used as a primary outcome for economic evaluation.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 3rd 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.

Limits to human life span through extreme value theory. Journal of the American Statistical Association [RePEc] Published 2nd April 2019

The oldest verified person to have ever lived was Jeanne Calment who died in 1997 at the superlative age of 122. No-one else has ever been recorded as living longer than 120, but there have been perhaps a few hundred supercentarians over 110. Whenever someone reaches such a stupendous age, some budding reporter will ask them what the secret was. They will reply that they have stuck to a regimen of three boiled eggs and a glass of scotch every day for 80 years. And this information is of course completely meaningless due to survivorship bias. But as public health and health care improves and with it life expectancy, there remains the question of whether people will ever exceed these extreme ages or whether there is actually a limit to human longevity.

Some studies have attempted to address the question of maximum human longevity by looking at how key biological systems, like getting oxygen to the muscles or vasculature, degrade. They suggest that there would be an upper limit as key systems of the body just cannot last, which is not to say medicine might not find a way to fix or replace them in the future. Another way of addressing this question is to take a purely statistical approach and look at the distribution of the ages of the oldest people alive and try to make inferences about its upper limit. Such an analysis relies on extreme value theory.

There are two types of extreme value data. The first type consists of just the series of maximum values from the distribution. The Fisher-Tippett-Gnedenko theorem shows that these maxima can only be distributed according to one of three distributions. The second type of data are all of the most extreme observations above a certain threshold, and wonderfully there is another triple-barrelled theorem that shows that these data are distributed as a generalised Pareto distribution – the Pickand-Balkema-de Haan theorem. This article makes use of this latter type of data and theorem to estimate: (i) is there an upper limit to the distribution of human life spans? (ii) What is it, if so? And (iii) does it change over time?

The authors use a dataset of the ages of death in days of all Dutch residents who died over the age of 92 between 1986 and 2015. Using these data to estimate the parameters of the generalised Pareto distribution, they find strong evidence to suggest that, statistically at least, it has an upper limit and that this limit is probably around 117-124. Over the years of the study there did not appear to be any change in this limit. This is not to say that it couldn’t change in the future if some new miraculous treatment appeared, but for now, we humans must put up with a short and finite existence.

Infant health care and long-term outcomes. Review of Economics and Statistics [RePEc] Published 13th May 2019

I haven’t covered an article on infant health and economic conditions and longer term outcomes for a while. It used to be that there would be one in every round-up I wrote. I could barely keep up with the literature, which I tried to summarise in a different blog post. Given that it has been a while, I thought I would include a new one. This time we are looking at the effect of mother and child health centres in Norway in the 1930s on the outcomes of adults later in the 20th Century.

Fortunately the health centres were built in different municipalities at different times. The authors note that the “key identifying assumption” is that they were not built at a time related to the health of infants in those areas (well, this and that the model is linear and additive, time trends are linear, etc. etc. something that economists often forget). They don’t go into too much detail on this, but it seems plausible. Another gripe of mine with most empirical economic papers, and indeed in medical and public health fields, is that plotting the data is a secondary concern or doesn’t happen at all. It should be the most important thing. Indeed, in this article much of the discussion can be captured by the figure buried two thirds through. The figure shows that the centres likely led to a big reduction in diarrhoeal disease, probably due to increased rates of breast feeding, but on other outcomes effects are more ambiguous and probably quite small if they exist. Some evidence is provided to suggest that these differences were associated with very modest increases in educational attainment and adult wages. However, a cost-benefit calculation suggests that on the basis of these wage increases the intervention had a annualised rate of return of about 5%.

I should say that this study is well-conducted and fairly solid so any gripes with it are fairly minor. It certainly fits neatly into the wide literature on the topic, and I don’t think anyone would doubt that investing in childhood interventions is likely to have a number of short and long term benefits.

Relationship between poor olfaction and mortality among community-dwelling older adults: a cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMed] Published 21st May 2019

I included this last study, not because of any ground-breaking economics or statistics, but because it is interesting. This is one of a number of studies to have looked at the relationship between smell ability and risk of death. These studies have generally found a strong direct relationship between poor olfaction and risk of death in the following years (summarised briefly in this editorial). This study examines a cohort of a couple of thousand older people whose smell was rigourously tested at baseline, among other things. If they died then their death was categorised by a medical examiner into one of four categories: dementia or Parkinson disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory illness.

There was a very strong relationship between poor ability to smell and all-cause death. They found that cumulative risk for death was 46% and 30% higher in persons with a loss of smelling ability at 10 and 13 years respectively. Delving into death by cause, they found that this relationship was most important among those who died of dementia or Parkinson disease, which makes sense as smell is one of the oldest limbic structures and linked to many parts of the brain. Some relationship was seen with cardiovascular disease but not cancer or respiratory illness. They then use a ‘mediation analysis’, i.e. conditioning on post-treatment variables to ‘block’ causal pathways, to identify how much variation is explained and conclude that dementia, Parkinson disease, and weight loss account for about 30% of the observed relationship. However, I am usually suspicious of mediation analyses, and standard arguments would suggest that model parameters would be biased.

Interestingly, olfaction is not normally used as a diagnostic test among the elderly despite sense of smell being one of the strongest predictors of mortality. People do not generally notice their sense of smell waning as it is gradual, so would not likely remark on it to a doctor. Perhaps it is time to start testing it routinely?

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