Rita Faria’s journal round-up for 13th May 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.

Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science. Royal Society Open Science Published 8th May 2019

This remarkable paper by Anne Marthe van der Bles and colleagues, including the illustrious David Spiegelhalter, covers two of my most favourite topics: communication and uncertainty. They focused on epistemic uncertainty. That is, the uncertainty about facts, numbers and science due to limited knowledge (rather than due to the randomness of the world). This is what we could know more about, if we spent more resources in finding it out.

The authors propose a framework for communicating uncertainty and apply it to two case studies, one in climate change and the other in economic statistics. They also review the literature on the effect of communicating uncertainty. It is so wide-ranging and exhaustive that, if I have any criticism, its 42 pages are not conducive to a leisurely read.

I found the distinction between direct and indirect uncertainty fascinating and incredibly relevant to health economics. Direct uncertainty is about the precision of the evidence whilst indirect uncertainty is about its quality. For example, evidence based on a naïve comparison of patients in a Phase 2 trial with historical controls in another country (yup, this happens!).

So, how should we communicate the uncertainty in our findings? I’m afraid that this paper is not a practical guide but rather a brilliant ground clearing exercise on how to start thinking about this. Nevertheless Box 5 (p35) does give some good advice! I do hope this paper kick-starts research on how to explain uncertainty beyond an academic audience. Looking forward to more!

Was Brexit triggered by the old and unhappy? Or by financial feelings? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization [RePEc] Published 18th April 2019

Not strictly health economics – although arguably Brexit affects our health – is this impressive study about the factors that contributed to the Leave win in the Brexit referendum. Federica Liberini and colleagues used data from the Understanding Society survey to look at the predictors of people’s views about whether or not the UK should leave the EU. The main results are from a regression on whether or not a person was pro-Brexit, regressed on life satisfaction, their feelings on their financial situation, and other characteristics.

Their conclusions are staggering. They found that people’s views were generally unrelated to their age, their life satisfaction or their income. Instead, it was a person’s feelings about their financial situation that was the strongest predictor. For economists, it may be a bit cringe-worthy to see OLS used for a categorical dependent variable. But to be fair, the authors mention that the results are similar with non-linear models and they report extensive supplementary analyses. Remarkably, they’re making the individual level data available on the 18th of June here.

As the authors discuss, it is not clear if we’re looking at predictive estimates of characteristics related to pro-Brexit feeling or at causal estimates of factors that led to the pro-Brexit feeling. That is, if we could improve someone’s perceived financial situation, would we reduce their probability of feeling pro-Brexit? In any case, the message is clear. Feelings matter!

How does treating chronic hepatitis C affect individuals in need of organ transplants in the United Kingdom? Value in Health Published 8th March 2019

Anupam Bapu Jena and colleagues looked at the spillover benefits of curing hepatitis C given its consequences on the supply and demand of liver and other organs for transplant in the UK. They compare three policies: the status quo, in which there is no screening for hepatitis C and organ donation by people with hepatitis C is rare; universal screen and treat policy where cured people opt-in for organ donation; and similarly, but with opt-out for organ donation.

To do this, they adapted a previously developed queuing model. For the status quo, the model inputs were estimated by calibrating the model outputs to reported NHS performance. They then changed the model inputs to reflect the anticipated impact of the new policies. Importantly, they assumed that all patients with hepatitis C would be cured and no longer require a transplanted organ; conversely, that cured patients would donate organs at similar rates to the general population. They predict that curing hepatitis C would directly reduce the waiting list for organ transplants by reducing the number of patients needing them. Also, there would be an indirect benefit via increasing their availability to other patients. These consequences aren’t typically included in the cost-effectiveness analysis of treatments for hepatitis C, which means that their comparative benefits and costs may not be accurate.

Keeping in the theme of uncertainty, it was disappointing that the paper does not include some sort of confidence bounds on its results nor does it present sensitivity analysis to their assumptions, which in my view, were quite favourable towards a universal screen and test policy. This is an interesting application of a queuing model, which is something I don’t often see in cost-effectiveness analysis. It is also timely and relevant, given the recent drive by the NHS to eliminate hepatitis C. In a few years’ time, we’ll hopefully know to what extent the predicted spillover benefits were realised.

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Simon McNamara’s journal round-up for 21st January 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.

Assessing capability in economic evaluation: a life course approach? The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 8th January 2019

If you have spent any time on social media in the last week there is a good chance that you will have seen the hashtag #10yearchallenge. This hashtag is typically accompanied by two photos of the poster; one recent, and one from 10 years ago. Whilst the minority of these posts suggest that the elixir of permanent youth has been discovered and is being hidden away by a select group of people, the majority show clear signs of ageing. As time passes, we change. Our skin becomes wrinkled, our hair may become grey, and we may become heavier. What these pictures don’t show, is how we change internally – and I don’t mean biologically. As we become older, and we experience life, so the things we think are important change. Our souls become wrinkled, and our minds become heavier.

The first paper in this week’s round-up is founded on this premise, albeit grounded in the measurement of capability well-being across the life course, rather than a hashtag. The capabilities approach is grounded in the normative judgement that the desirability of policy outcomes should be evaluated by what Sen called the ‘capabilities’ they provide – “the functionings, or the capabilities to function” they give people, where functionings for a person are defined as “the various things that he or she manages to do or be in leading a good life” (Sen, 1993). The author (Joanna Coast) appeals to her, and others’, work on the family of ICECAP measures (capability measures), in order to argue that the capabilities we value changes across the stage of life we are experiencing. For example, she notes that the development work for the ICECAP-A (adults) resulted in the choice of an ‘achievement’ attribute in that instrument, whilst for ICECAP-O (older people) an alternative ‘role’ attribute was used – with the achievement attribute primarily linked to having the ability to make progress in life, and the role attribute linked to having the ability to do things that make you feel valued. Similarly, she notes that the attributes that emerged from development work on the ICECAP-SCM (supportive care – a term for the end of life) are different to those from ICECAP-A (adults), with dignity coming to the forefront as a valued attribute towards the end of life. The author then goes on to suggest that it would be normatively desirable to capture how the capabilities we value changes over the life-course, suggests this could be done with a range of different measures, and highlights a number of problems associated with this (e.g. when does a life-stage start and finish?).

You should read this paper. It is only four pages long and definitely worth your time. If you have spent enough time on social media to know what the #10yearchallenge is, then you definitely have time to read it. I think this is a really interesting topic and a great paper. It has certainly got me thinking more about capabilities, and I will be keeping an eye out for future papers on this in future.

Future directions in valuing benefits for estimating QALYs: is time up for the EQ-5D? Value in Health Published 17th January 2019

If EQ-5D were a person, I think I would be giving it a good hug right now. Every time my turn to write this round-up comes up there seems to be a new article criticising it, pointing out potential flaws in the way it has been valued, or proposing a new alternative. If it could speak, I imagine it would tell us it is doing its best – perhaps with a small tear in its eye. It has done what it can to evolve, it has tried to change, but as we approach its 30th birthday, and exciting new instruments are under development, the authors of the second paper in this week’s round-up question – “Is time up for the EQ-5D?”

If you are interested in the valuation of outcomes, you should probably read this paper. It is a really neat summary of recent developments in the assessment and valuation of the benefits of healthcare, and gives a good indication of where the field may be headed. Before jumping into reading the paper, it is worth dwelling on its title. Note that the authors have used the term “valuing benefits for estimating QALYs” and not “valuing health states for estimating QALYs”. This is telling, and reflects the growing interest in measuring, and valuing, the benefits of healthcare based upon a broader conception of well-being, rather than simply health as represented by the EQ-5D. It is this issue that rests at the heart of the paper, and is probably the biggest threat to the long-term domination of EQ-5D. If it wasn’t designed to capture the things we are now interested in, then why not modify it further, or go back to the drawing board and start again?

I am not going to attempt to cover all the points made in the paper, as I can’t do it justice in this blog; but in summary, the authors review a number of ways this could be done, outline recent developments in the way the subsequent instrument could be valued, and detail the potential advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of moving to a new instrument. Ultimately, the authors conclude that the future of the valuation of outcomes – be that with EQ-5D or something else, depends upon a number of judgements, including whether non-health factors are considered to be relevant when valuing the benefits of healthcare. If they are then EQ-5D isn’t fit for purpose, and we need a new instrument. Whilst the paper doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the question “Is Time Up for the EQ-5D?”, the fact that NICE, the EuroQol group, two of the authors of this paper, and a whole host of others, are currently collaborating on a new measure, which captures both health and non-health outcomes, indicates that EQ-5D may well be nearing the end of its dominance. I look forward to seeing how this work progresses over the next few years.

The association between economic uncertainty and suicide in the short-run. Social Science and Medicine [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 24th November 2018

As I write this, the United Kingdom is 10 weeks away from the date we are due to leave the European Union, and we are still uncertain about how, and potentially even whether, we will finally leave. The uncertainty created by Brexit covers both economic and social spheres, and impacts many of those in the United Kingdom, and many beyond who have ties to us. I am afraid the next paper isn’t a cheery one, but given this situation, it is a timely one.

In the final paper in this round-up, the authors explore the link between economic uncertainty and short-term suicide rates. This is done by linking the UK EPU index of economic uncertainty – an index generated based upon the articles published in 650 UK newspapers – to the daily suicide rates in England and Wales between 2001 and 2015. The authors find evidence of an increase in suicide rates on the days on which the EPU index was higher, and also of a lagged effect on the day after a spike in the index. Over the course of a year, this effect means a one standard deviation increase in the EPU is expected to lead to 11 additional deaths in that year. In comparison to the number of deaths per year from cardiovascular disease, and cancer, this effect is relatively modest, but is nevertheless concerning given the nature of the way in which these people are dying.

I am not going to pretend I enjoyed reading this paper. Technically it is good, and it is an interesting paper, but the topic was just a bit too dark and too relevant to our current situation. Whilst reading I couldn’t help but wonder whether I am going to be reading a similar paper linking Brexit uncertainty to suicide at some point in the future. Fingers crossed this isn’t the case.

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Some early thoughts on Brexit and the NHS

In one interview I’ve read an ‘out’ voter describe how they voted for Brexit because they felt there was too much pressure on the NHS. I think it can be inferred that the believed cause of these pressures is immigration. I don’t feel this person is alone in these beliefs at all unfortunately. While it is the case that there is a rising need for healthcare and an insufficient supply to meet this need, there are huge uncertainties about future political and economic outcomes, which rules out any precise prediction about what will happen in the NHS. Nevertheless, we can tentatively consider the effects of Brexit on certain key areas on both the demand and supply sides and think about how leaving the EU might impact on the NHS.

Supply

Efficiency. The NHS is tasked with finding large efficiency savings. In 2011 the health service was expected to find at least £16.4 billion in efficiency savings by 2014/15. This was through a fairly nebulous process of production of local integrated plans, reducing input costs, and redesigning services. Alas, these efficiency targets were not met, as we have discussed previously. Indeed, over the past 20 years, there has been little improvement in efficiency. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the NHS has achieved an average increase in efficiency of 0.8% per annum. Recently observed modest improvements in efficiency may be due more to current outputs being determined by past spending than current spending, so annual inputs to outputs ratios appear more favourable and could be expected to deteriorate going forward. In any case, how Brexit will affect efficiency is not clear, but may depend on how the labour force, of which a significant proportion are migrants, evolves in the near future.

Funding. Up to 2010 the NHS budget increased by approximately 4% per annum. Post-2010 this dropped to a little under 1% on average with some areas hit worse than others. For example, Wales experienced a drop in funding of 1% between 2014/15 and 2015/16. These changes were driven by government policy to reduce fiscal expenditure in response to the ‘great recession’. As a result there are projected to be significant shortfalls in funding. The most optimistic scenario in the NHS Five Year Plan puts this shortfall at £8 billion by 2020/21, but this optimistic scenario requires efficiency savings of 2-3%, far greater than the 0.8% that has been previously achieved. The general consensus among economists of the effects of Brexit are that it will lead to a further recession, further fiscal contraction might therefore be expected in response from the government. A corollary to the fact that there has been a lack of any systematic change in NHS efficiency is that outputs a straightforwardly determined by inputs, reductions in funding will therefore likely lead to reductions in outputs.

Overall, a precursory analysis would suggest that the supply of healthcare services may be reduced as a result of Brexit. But this may not be a problem if demand is reduced concurrently.

Demand

Immigration and Demographics. The use of public healthcare services has been a topic of discussion in the news for a number of years. The King’s Fund provide a nice summary of the evidence on the topic in which they say:

There has been a great deal of debate about the impact of immigration on the NHS. However, there is a lack of reliable data on the use of health services by immigrants and visitors… The best research on this is, by its own admission, tentative. The Department of Health published research into the cost of providing services to visitors and immigrants in 2013. The total gross cost at the top end of the estimate is £2 billion per year, of which a relatively small amount was recouped through charges and other arrangements. However, this total includes the use of the NHS by nationals of countries with which the United Kingdom has a reciprocal agreement. Within this total, ‘health tourism’, where people come to the United Kingdom with the express intent of using health services to which they were not entitled, was estimated to cost between £60 million and £80 million per year. This compares to the annual NHS budget of £113 billion.

This may lead us to expect that even if migration was completely reversed it would have very little effect on the funding deficit that the NHS is facing. On the demand side, demographic factors such as population aging and increases in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases are much larger drivers of demand. For example, the direct costs to the NHS of Type 2 diabetes was estimated in 2012 to be £8.8 billion, a cost which is expected to double over the next 20 years. Thus, Brexit is unlikely to have much of an effect on overall demand.

(An Initial) Conclusion

At this stage little can be said with certainty. However, the evidence would suggest the Brexit may lead to a potential increase in the mismatch between the growing need for healthcare services and their supply unless there is a change in government policy to significantly increase funding. Since there is no price mechanism in the NHS to limit demand, the use of other measures to ration services may increase. These include increasing waiting lists, removing ‘non-essential’ services, or limiting access to certain treatment to only those who stand to benefit the most. However, only time will tell.

Update: The King’s Fund library has a collection of EU referendum and NHS papers here.

Photo credit: EU Exposed (CC BY 2.0)