Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 12th August 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.

Developing open-source models for the US health system: practical experiences and challenges to date with the Open-Source Value Project. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 7th August 2019

PharmacoEconomics will soon publish a themed issue on transparency in decision modelling (to which I’ve contributed), and this paper – I assume – is one that will feature. At least one output from the Open-Source Value Project has featured in these round-ups before. The purpose of this paper is to describe the experiences of the initiative in developing and releasing two open-source models, one in rheumatoid arthritis and one in lung cancer.

The authors outline the background to the project and its goal to develop credible models that are more tuned-in to stakeholders’ needs. By sharing the R and C++ source code, developing interactive web applications, and providing extensive documentation, the models are intended to be wholly transparent and flexible. The model development process also involves feedback from experts and the public, followed by revision and re-release. It’s a huge undertaking. The paper sets out the key challenges associated with this process, such as enabling stakeholders with different backgrounds to understand technical models and each other. The authors explain how they have addressed such difficulties along the way. The resource implications of this process are also challenging, because the time and expertise required are much greater than for run-of-the-mill decision models. The advantages of the tools used by the project, such as R and GitHub, are explained, and the paper provides some ammunition for the open-source movement. One of the best parts of the paper is the authors’ challenge to those who question open-source modelling on the basis of intellectual property concerns. For example, they state that, “Claiming intellectually property on the implementation of a relatively common modeling approach in Excel or other programming software, such as a partitioned survival model in oncology, seems a bit pointless.” Agreed.

The response to date from the community has been broadly positive, though there has been a lack of engagement from US decision-makers. Despite this, the initiative has managed to secure adequate funding. This paper is a valuable read for anyone involved in open-source modelling or in establishing a collaborative platform for the creation and dissemination of research tools.

Incorporating affordability concerns within cost-effectiveness analysis for health technology assessment. Value in Health Published 30th July 2019

The issue of affordability is proving to be a hard nut to crack for health economists. That’s probably because we’ve spent a very long time conducting incremental cost-effectiveness analyses that pay little or no attention to the budget constraint. This paper sets out to define a framework that finally brings affordability into the fold.

The author sets up an example with a decision-maker that seeks to maximise population health with a fixed budget – read, HTA agency – and the motivating example is new medicines for hepatitis C. The core of the proposal is an alternative decision rule. Rather than simply comparing the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) to a fixed threshold, it incorporates a threshold that is a function of the budget impact. At it’s most basic, a bigger budget impact (all else equal) means a greater opportunity cost and thus a lower threshold. The author suggests doing away with the ICER (which is almost impossible to work with) and instead using net health benefits. In this framework, whether or not net health benefit is greater than zero depends on the size of the budget impact at any given ICER. If we accept the core principle that budget impact should be incorporated into the decision rule, it raises two other issues – time and uncertainty – which are also addressed in the paper. The framework moves us beyond the current focus on net present value, which ignores the distribution of costs over time beyond simply discounting future expenditure. Instead, the opportunity cost ‘threshold’ depends on the budget impact in each time period. The description of the framework also addresses uncertainty in budget impact, which requires the estimation of opportunity costs in each iteration of a probabilistic analysis.

The paper is thorough in setting out the calculations needed to implement this framework. If you’re conducting an economic evaluation of a technology that could have a non-marginal (big) budget impact, you should tag this on to your analysis plan. Once researchers start producing these estimates, we’ll be able to understand how important these differences could be for resource allocation decision-making and determine whether the likes of NICE ought to incorporate it into their methods guide.

Did UberX reduce ambulance volume? Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 24th June 2019

In London, you can probably – at most times of day – get an Uber quicker than you can get an ambulance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as ambulances aren’t there to provide convenience. But it does raise an interesting question. Could the availability of super-fast, low-cost, low-effort taxi hailing reduce pressure on ambulance services? If so, we might anticipate the effect to be greatest where people have to actually pay for ambulances.

This study combines data on Uber market entry in the US, by state and city, with ambulance rates. Between Q1 2012 and Q4 2015, the proportion of the US population with access to Uber rose from 0% to almost 25%. The authors are also able to distinguish ‘lights and sirens’ ambulance rides from ‘no lights and sirens’ rides. A difference-in-differences model estimates the ambulance rate for a given city by quarter-year. The analysis suggests that there was a significant decline in ambulance rates in the years following Uber’s entry to the market, implying an average of 1.2 fewer ambulance trips per 1,000 population per quarter.

There are some questionable results in here, including the fact that a larger effect was found for the ‘lights and sirens’ ambulance rate, so it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The authors describe a variety of robustness checks for our consideration. Unfortunately, the discussion of the results is lacking in detail and insight, so readers need to figure it out themselves. I’d be very interested to see a similar analysis in the UK. I suspect that I would be inclined to opt for an Uber over an ambulance in many cases. And I wouldn’t have the usual concern about Uber exploiting its drivers, as I dare say ambulance drivers aren’t treated much better.

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James Lomas’s journal round-up for 21st May 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.

Decision making for healthcare resource allocation: joint v. separate decisions on interacting interventions. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 23rd April 2018

While it may be uncontroversial that including all of the relevant comparators in an economic evaluation is crucial, a careful examination of this statement raises some interesting questions. Which comparators are relevant? For those that are relevant, how crucial is it that they are not excluded? The answer to the first of these questions may seem obvious, that all feasible mutually exclusive interventions should be compared, but this is in fact deceptive. Dakin and Gray highlight inconsistency between guidelines as to what constitutes interventions that are ‘mutually exclusive’ and so try to re-frame the distinction according to whether interventions are ‘incompatible’ – when it is physically impossible to implement both interventions simultaneously – and, if not, whether interventions are ‘interacting’ – where the costs and effects of the simultaneous implementation of A and B do not equal the sum of these parts. What I really like about this paper is that it has a very pragmatic focus. Inspired by policy arrangements, for example single technology appraisals, and the difficulty in capturing all interactions, Dakin and Gray provide a reader-friendly flow diagram to illustrate cases where excluding interacting interventions from a joint evaluation is likely to have a big impact, and furthermore propose a sequencing approach that avoids the major problems in evaluating separately what should be considered jointly. Essentially when we have interacting interventions at different points of the disease pathway, evaluating separately may not be problematic if we start at the end of the pathway and move backwards, similar to the method of backward induction used in sequence problems in game theory. There are additional related questions that I’d like to see these authors turn to next, such as how to include interaction effects between interventions and, in particular, how to evaluate system-wide policies that may interact with a very large number of interventions. This paper makes a great contribution to answering all of these questions by establishing a framework that clearly distinguishes concepts that had previously been subject to muddied thinking.

When cost-effective interventions are unaffordable: integrating cost-effectiveness and budget impact in priority setting for global health programs. PLoS Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd October 2017

In my opinion, there are many things that health economists shouldn’t try to include when they conduct cost-effectiveness analysis. Affordability is not one of these. This paper is great, because Bilinski et al shine a light on the worldwide phenomenon of interventions being found to be ‘cost-effective’ but not affordable. A particular quote – that it would be financially impossible to implement all interventions that are found to be ‘very cost-effective’ in many low- and middle-income countries – is quite shocking. Bilinski et al compare and contrast cost-effectiveness analysis and budget impact analysis, and argue that there are four key reasons why something could be ‘cost-effective’ but not affordable: 1) judging cost-effectiveness with reference to an inappropriate cost-effectiveness ‘threshold’, 2) adoption of a societal perspective that includes costs not falling upon the payer’s budget, 3) failing to make explicit consideration of the distribution of costs over time and 4) the use of an inappropriate discount rate that may not accurately reflect the borrowing and investment opportunities facing the payer. They then argue that, because of this, cost-effectiveness analysis should be presented along with budget impact analysis so that the decision-maker can base a decision on both analyses. I don’t disagree with this as a pragmatic interim solution, but – by highlighting these four reasons for divergence of results with such important economic consequences – I think that there will be further reaching implications of this paper. To my mind, Bilinski et al essentially serves as a call to arms for researchers to try to come up with frameworks and estimates so that the conduct of cost-effectiveness analysis can be improved in order that paradoxical results are no longer produced, decisions are more usefully informed by cost-effectiveness analysis, and the opportunity costs of large budget impacts are properly evaluated – especially in the context of low- and middle-income countries where the foregone health from poor decisions can be so significant.

Patient cost-sharing, socioeconomic status, and children’s health care utilization. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 16th April 2018

This paper evaluates a policy using a combination of regression discontinuity design and difference-in-difference methods. Not only does it do that, but it tackles an important policy question using a detailed population-wide dataset (a set of linked datasets, more accurately). As if that weren’t enough, one of the policy reforms was actually implemented as a result of a vote where two politicians ‘accidentally pressed the wrong button’, reducing concerns that the policy may have in some way not been exogenous. Needless to say I found the method employed in this paper to be a pretty convincing identification strategy. The policy question at hand is about whether demand for GP visits for children in the Swedish county of Scania (Skåne) is affected by cost-sharing. Cost-sharing for GP visits has occurred for different age groups over different periods of time, providing the basis for regression discontinuities around the age threshold and treated and control groups over time. Nilsson and Paul find results suggesting that when health care is free of charge doctor visits by children increase by 5-10%. In this context, doctor visits happened subject to telephone triage by a nurse and so in this sense it can be argued that all of these visits would be ‘needed’. Further, Nilsson and Paul find that the sensitivity to price is concentrated in low-income households, and is greater among sickly children. The authors contextualise their results very well and, in addition to that context, I can’t deny that it also particularly resonated with me to read this approaching the 70th birthday of the NHS – a system where cost-sharing has never been implemented for GP visits by children. This paper is clearly also highly relevant to that debate that has surfaced again and again in the UK.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th March 2016

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.

Affordability and availability of off-patent drugs in the United States—the case for importing from abroad: observational study. BMJ [PubMedPublished 19th March 2018

Martin Shkreli has been frequently called “the most hated man in America“. Aside from defrauding investors and being the envied owner of a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, the company of which he was chief executive, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased the sole US approved manufacturer of a toxoplasmosis treatment, pyrimethamine, and hiked its price from $13 to $750 per tablet. Price gouging is nothing new in the pharmaceutical sector. An episode of the recent Netflix documentary series Dirty Money covers the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals whose entire business was structured around the purchase of drug companies, laying off any research staff, and then hiking the price as high as the market could bear (even if this included running their own pharmacies to buy products at these inflated prices). The structure of the US drug market often allows the formation of monopolies on off-patent, or generic, medication, since the process for regulatory approval for a new manufacturer can be long and expensive. There have been proposals though that this could be ameliorated by allowing manufacturers approved by other trusted agencies (such as the European Medicines Agencies) to sell generics in the US while the FDA approvals process takes place. The aim of this paper is to determine how many more manufacturers this would allow into the US drugs market. The authors identify all the off-patent drugs that have been approved by the FDA since 1939 and all the manufacturers of those drugs that were approved by the FDA and by other trusted agencies. No analysis is given of how this might affect drug prices, though there is a pretty obvious correlation between the number of manufacturers and drug prices shown elsewhere. The results show that the proposed policy would increase the number of manufacturers for a sizeable proportion of generics: for example, 39% of generic medications could reach four or more manufacturers when including those approved by non-FDA bodies.

Why internists might want single-payer health care. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 20th March 2018

The US healthcare system has long been an object of fascination for many health economists. It spends far more than any other nation on healthcare (approximately $9,000 per capita compared to, say, $4,000 for the UK) and yet population health ranks alongside middle-income countries like Cuba and Ecuador. Garber and Skinner wondered whether it was uniquely inefficient and identified or questioned a number of issues that may or may not explain the efficiency or lack thereof. One of these was the administrative burden of multiple insurance companies, which evidence suggests does not actually account for much of the total expenditure on health care. However, Garber and Skinner say this does not take into account time spent by clinical and non-clinical staff on administration within hospitals. In this opinion piece, Paul Sorum argues that internists should support a move to a single-payer system in the US. One of his four points is the administrative burden of dealing with insurance companies, which he cites as an astonishing 61 hours per week per physician (presumably spread across a number of staff). Certainly, this seems to be a key issue. But Sorum’s other three points don’t necessarily support a single-payer system. He also argues that the insurance system is leading to increasing deductibles and co-payments placed on patients, limiting access to medications, as drug prices rise. Indeed, Garber and Skinner note also that high deductibles limit the use of highly cost-effective measures and actually have the opposite effect of reducing productive efficiency. A single payer system per se would not solve this, it would need significant subsidies and regulation as well, and as our previous paper shows, other measures can be used to bring down drug prices. Sorum also argues that the US insurance system places an unnecessary burden from quality measures and assessment as well as electronic medical records used to collect information for billing purposes. But these issues of quality and electronic medical records have been discussed in the context of many health care systems, not least the NHS, as the political and regulatory framework still requires this. So a single-payer system is not a solution here. A key difference between the US and elsewhere that Garber and Skinner identify is that the US permits much more heterogeneity in access to and use of health care (e.g. overuse by the wealthy and underuse by the poor). Significant political barriers stand in the way of a single payer system, and since other means can be used to achieve universal coverage, such as the provisions in the Affordable Care Act, maybe internists would be better directing their energy at more achievable goals.

Social ties in academia: a friend is a treasure. Review of Economics and Statistics [RePEcPublished 2nd March 2018

If you ever wondered whether the reason you didn’t get published in that top economics journal was that you didn’t know the right people, you may well be right! This article examines the social ties between authors and editors of the top four economics journals. Almost half of the papers published in these journals had at least one author with a connection to an editor, either through working in the same department, co-authoring a paper, or PhD supervision. The QJE appears to be the worst offender with (if I’ve read this correctly) all authors between 2000 and 2006 getting their PhD in either Harvard or MIT. So don’t bother trying to get published there! This article also shows that you’re more likely to get a paper into the journals when your former PhD supervisor is editing it. Given how much sway a paper published in these journals has on the future careers of young economists, it is disheartening to see the extent of nepotism in the publication process. Of course, one may argue that it just so happens that those that work at the top journals associate most frequently with those who write the best papers. But given even a little understanding of human nature, one would be inclined to discount this explanation. We have all previously asked ourselves, especially when writing a journal round-up, how this or that paper got into a particularly highly regarded journal, now we know…

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