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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Ambulance and economics

I have recently been watching the BBC series AmbulanceIt is a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the West Midlands Ambulance Service interspersed with candid interviews with ambulance staff, much in the same vein as other health care documentaries like 24 Hours in A&EAs much as anything it provides a (stylised) look at the conditions on the ground for staff and illustrates how health care institutions are as much social institutions as essential services. In a recent episode, the cost of a hoax call was noted as some thousands of pounds. Indeed, the media and health services often talk about the cost of hoax calls in this way:

Warning for parents as one hoax call costs public £2,465 and diverts ambulance from real emergency call.

Frequent 999 callers cost NHS millions of pounds a year.

Nuisance caller cost the taxpayer £78,000 by making 408 calls to the ambulance service in two years.

But these are accounting costs, not the full economic cost. The first headline almost captures this by suggesting the opportunity cost was attendance at a real emergency call. However, given the way that ambulance resources are deployed and triaged across calls, it is very difficult to say what the opportunity cost is: what would be the marginal benefit of having an additional ambulance crew for the duration of a hoax call? What is the shadow price of an ambulance unit?

Few studies have looked at this question. The widely discussed study by Claxton et al. in the UK, looked at shadow prices of health care across different types of care, but noted that:

Expenditure on, for example, community care, A&E, ambulance services, and outpatients can be difficult to attribute to a particular [program budget category].

One review identified a small number of studies examining the cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness of emergency response services. Estimates of the marginal cost per life saved ranged from approximately $5,000 to $50,000. However, this doesn’t really tell us the impact of an additional crew, nor were many of these studies comparable in terms of the types of services they looked at, and these were all US-based.

There does exist the appropriately titled paper Ambulance EconomicsThis paper approaches the question we’re interested in, in the following way:

The centrepiece of our analysis is what we call the Ambulance Response Curve (ARC). This shows the relationship between the response time for an individual call (r) and the number of ambulances available and not in use (n) at the time the call was made. For example, let us suppose that 35 ambulances are on duty and 10 of them are being used. Then n has the value of 25 when the next call is taken. Ceteris paribus, as increases, we expect that r will fall.

On this basis, one can look at how an additional ambulance affects response times, on average. One might then be able to extrapolate the health effects of that delay. This paper suggests that an additional ambulance would reduce response times by around nine seconds on average for the service they looked at – not actually very much. However, the data are 20 years old, and significant changes to demand and supply over that period are likely to have a large effect on the ARC. Nevertheless, changes in response time of the order of minutes are required in order to have a clinically significant impact on survival, which are unlikely to occur with one additional ambulance.

Taken altogether, the opportunity cost of a hoax call is not likely to be large. This is not to downplay the stupidity of such calls, but it is perhaps reassuring that lives are not likely to be in the balance and is a testament to the ability of the service to appropriately deploy their limited resources.

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Paul Mitchell’s journal round-up for 17th April 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.

Is foreign direct investment good for health in low and middle income countries? An instrumental variable approach. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 28th March 2017

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is considered a key benefit of globalisation in the economic development of countries with developing economies. The effect FDI has on the population health of countries is less well understood. In this paper, the authors draw from a large panel of data, primarily World Bank and UN sources, for 85 low and middle income countries between 1974 and 2012 to assess the relationship between FDI and population health, proxied by life expectancy at birth, as well as child and adult mortality data. They explain clearly the problem of using basic regression analysis in trying to explain this relationship, given the problem of endogeneity between FDI and health outcomes. By introducing two instrumental variables, using grossed fixed capital formation and volatility of exchange rates in FDI origin countries, as well as controlling for GDP per capita, education, quality of institutions and urban population, the study shows that FDI is weakly statistically associated with life expectancy, estimated to amount to 4.15 year increase in life expectancy during the study period. FDI also appears to have an effect on reducing adult mortality, but a negligible effect on child mortality. They also produce some evidence that FDI linked to manufacturing could lead to reductions in life expectancy, although these findings are not as robust as the other findings using instrumental variables, so they recommend this relationship between FDI type and population health to be explored further. The paper also clearly shows the benefit of robust analysis using instrumental variables, as the results without the introduction of these variables to the regression would have led to misleading inferences, where no relationship between life expectancy and FDI would have been found if the analysis did not adjust for the underlying endogeneity bias.

Uncovering waste in US healthcare: evidence from ambulance referral patterns. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 22nd March 2017

This study looks to unpick some of the reasons behind the estimated waste in US healthcare spending, by focusing on mortality rates across the country following an emergency admission to hospital through ambulances. The authors argue that patients admitted to hospital for emergency care using ambulances act as a good instrument to assess hospital quality given the nature of emergency admissions limiting the selection bias of what type of patients end up in different hospitals. Using linear regressions, the study primarily measures the relationship between patients assigned to certain hospitals and the 90-day spending on these patients compared to mortality. They also consider one-year mortality and the downstream payments post-acute care (excluding pharmaceuticals outside the hospital setting) has on this outcome. Through a lengthy data cleaning process, the study looks at over 1.5 million admissions between 2002-2011, with a high average age of patients of 82 who are predominantly female and white. Approximately $27,500 per patient was spent in the first 90 days post-admission, with inpatient spending accounting for the majority of this amount (≈$16,000). The authors argue initially that the higher 90-day spending in some hospitals only produces modestly lower mortality rates. Spending over 1 year is estimated to cost more than $300,000 per life year, which the authors use to argue that current spending levels do not lead to improved outcomes. But when the authors dig deeper, it seems clear there is an association between hospitals who have higher spending on inpatient care and reduced mortality, approximately 10% lower. This leads to the authors turning their attention to post-acute care as their main target of reducing waste and they find an association between mortality and patients receiving specialised nursing care. However, this target seems somewhat strange to me, as post-acute care is not controlled for in the same way as their initial, insightful approach to randomising based on ambulatory care. I imagine those in such care are likely to be a different mix from those receiving other types of care post 90 days after the initial event. I feel there really is not enough to go on to make recommendations about specialist nursing care being the key waste driver from their analysis as it says nothing, beyond mortality, about the quality of care these elderly patients are receiving in the specialist nurse facilities. After reading this paper, one way I would suggest in reducing inefficiency related to their primary analysis could be to send patients to the most appropriate hospital for what the patient needs in the first place, which seems difficult given the complexity of the private and hospital provided mix of ambulatory care offered in the US currently.

Population health and the economy: mortality and the Great Recession in Europe. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 27th March 2017

Understanding how economic recessions affect population health is of great research interest given the recent global financial crisis that led to the worst downturn in economic performance in the West since the 1930s. This study uses data from 27 European countries between 2004 and 2010 collected by WHO and the World Bank to study the relationship between economic performance and population health by comparing national unemployment and mortality rates before and after 2007. Regression analyses appropriate for time-series data are applied with a number of different specifications applied. The authors find that the more severe the economic downturn, the greater the increase in life expectancy at birth. Additional specific health mortality rates follow a similar trend in their analysis, with largest improvements observed in countries where the severity of the recession was the highest. The only exception the authors note is data on suicide, where they argue the relationship is less clear, but points towards higher rates of suicide with greater unemployment. The message the authors were trying to get across in this study was not very clear throughout most of the paper and some lay readers of the abstract alone could easily be misled in thinking recessions themselves were responsible for better population health. Mortality rates fell across all six years, but at a faster rate in the recession years. Although the results appeared consistent across all models, question marks remain for me in terms of their initial variable selection. Although the discussion mentions evidence that suggests health care may not have a short-term effect on mortality, they did not consider any potential lagged effect record investment in healthcare as a proportion of GDP up until 2007 may have had on the initial recession years. The authors rule out earlier comparisons with countries in the post-Soviet era but do not consider the effect of recent EU accession for many of the countries and more regulated national policies as a consequence. Another issue is the potential of countries’ mortality rates to improve, where countries with existing lower life expectancy have more room for moving in the right direction. However, one interesting discussion point raised by the authors in trying to explain their findings is the potential impact of economic activity on pollution levels and knock-on health impacts from this (and to a lesser extent occupational health levels), that may have some plausibility in better mortality rates linked to physical health during recessions.

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