Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 29th May 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.

“Naming and framing”: The impact of labeling on health state values for multiple sclerosis. Medical Decision Making [PubMedPublished 21st May 2017

Tell someone that the health state that they’re valuing is actually related to cancer, and they’ll give you a different value than if you hadn’t mentioned cancer. A lower value, probably. There’s a growing amount of evidence that ‘labelling’ health state descriptions with the name of a particular disease can influence the resulting values. Generally, the evidence is that mentioning the disease will lower values, though that’s probably because researchers have been selecting diseases that they think will show this. (Has anyone tried it for hayfever?) The jury is out on whether labelling is a good thing or a bad thing, so in the meantime, we need evidence for particular diseases to help us understand what’s going on. This study looks at MS. Two UK-representative samples (n = 1576; n = 1641) completed an online TTO valuation task for states defined using the condition-specific preference-based MSIS-8D. Participants were first asked to complete the MSIS-8D to provide their own health state, and then to rank three MSIS-8D states and also complete a practice TTO task. For the preference elicitation proper, individuals were presented with a set of 5 MSIS-8D health states. One group were asked to imagine that they had MS and were provided with some information and a link to the NHS Choices website. The authors’ first analysis tests for a difference due to labelling. Their second analysis creates two alternative tariffs for the MSIS-8D based on the two surveys. People in the label group reported lower health state values on average. The size of this labelling-related decrement was greater for less severe health states. The creation of the tariffs seemed to show that labelling does not have a consistent impact across dimensions. This means that, in practice, the two tariffs could favour different types of interventions, depending on for which dimensions benefits might be observed. The tariff derived from the label group demonstrated slightly poorer predictive performance. This study tells us that label-or-not is a decision that will influence the relative cost-effectiveness of interventions for MS. But we still need a sound basis for making that choice.

Nudges in a post-truth world. Journal of Medical Ethics [PubMed] Published 19th May 2017

Not everyone likes the idea of nudges. They can be used to get people to behave in ways that are ‘better’… but who decides what is better? Truth, surely, we can all agree, is better. There are strong forces against the truth, whether they be our own cognitive biases, the mainstream media (FAKE NEWS!!!), or Nutella trying to tell us they offer a healthy breakfast option thanks to all that calcium. In this essay, the author outlines a special kind of nudge, which he refers to as a ‘nudge to reason’. The paper starts with a summary of the evidence regarding the failure of people to change their minds in response to evidence, and the backfire effect, whereby false beliefs become even more entrenched in light of conflicting evidence. Memory failures, and the ease with which people can handle the information, are identified as key reasons for perverse responses to evidence. The author then goes on to look at the evidence in relation to the conditions in which people do respond to evidence. In particular, where people get their evidence matters (we still trust academics, right?). The persuasiveness of evidence can be influenced by the way it is delivered. So why not nudge towards the truth? The author focuses on a key objection to nudges; that they do not protect freedom in a substantive sense because they bypass people’s capacities for deliberation. Nudges take advantage of non-rational features of human nature and fail to treat people as autonomous agents deserving of respect. One of the reasons I’ve never much like nudges is that they could promote ignorance and reinforce biases. Nudges to reason, on the other hand, influence behaviour indirectly via beliefs: changing behaviour by changing minds by improving responses to genuine evidence. The author argues that nudges to reason do not bypass the deliberative capacities of agents at all, but rather appeal to them, and are thus permissible. They operate by appealing to mechanisms that are partially constitutive of rationality and this is itself part of what defines our substantive freedom. We could also extend this to argue that we have a moral responsibility to frame arguments in a way that is truth-conducive, in order to show respect to individuals. I think health economists are in a great position to contribute to these debates. Our subfield exists principally because of uncertainty and asymmetry of information in health care. We’ve been studying these things for years. I’m convinced by the author’s arguments about the permissibility of nudges to reason. But they’d probably make for flaccid public policy. Nudges to reason would surely be dominated by nudges to ignorance. Either people need coercing towards the truth or those nudges to ignorance need to be shut down.

How should hospital reimbursement be refined to support concentration of complex care services? Health Economics [PubMed] Published 19th May 2017

Treating rare and complex conditions in specialist centres may be good for patients. We might expect these patients to be especially expensive to treat compared with people treated in general hospitals. Therefore, unless reimbursement mechanisms are able to account for this, specialist hospitals will be financially disadvantaged and concentration might not be sustainable. Healthcare Resource Groups (HRGs) – the basis for current payments – only work if variation in cost is not related to any differences in the types of patients treated at particular hospitals. This study looks at hospitals that might be at risk of financial disadvantage due to differences in casemix complexity. Individual-level Hospital Episode Statistics for 2013-14 were matched to hospital-level Reference Costs and a set of indicators for the use of specialist services were applied. The data included 12.4 million patients of whom 766,204 received complex care. The authors construct a random effects model estimating the cost difference associated with complex care, by modelling the impact of a set of complex care markers on individual-level cost estimates. The Gini coefficient is estimated to look at the concentration of complex care across hospitals. Most of the complex care markers were associated with significantly higher costs. 26 of 69 types of complex care were associated with costs more than 10% higher. What’s more, complex care was concentrated among relatively few hospitals with a mean Gini coefficient of 0.88. Two possible approaches to fixing the payment system are considered: i) recalculation of the HRG price to include a top-up or ii) a more complex refinement of the allocation of patients to different HRGs. The second option becomes less attractive as more HRGs are subject to this refinement as we could end up with just one hospital reporting all of the activity for a particular HRG. Based on the expected impact of these differences – in view of the size of the cost difference and the extent of distribution across different HRGs and hospitals – the authors are able to make recommendations about which HRGs might require refinement. The study also hints at an interesting challenge. Some of the complex care services were associated with lower costs where care was concentrated in very few centres, suggesting that concentration could give rise to cost savings. This could imply that some HRGs may need refining downwards with complexity, which feels a bit counterintuitive. My only criticism of the paper? The references include at least 3 web pages that are no longer there. Please use WebCite, people!

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ICU triage: a challenge and an opportunity

In a well-publicized snapshot of the challenge of ICU triage, Chang and colleagues wrote:

Critical care services can be life-saving, but many patients admitted to intensive care units (ICUs) are too sick or, conversely, not sick enough to benefit. Intensive care unit overutilization can produce more costly and invasive care without improving outcomes.

Emphasis added. Hyder provides an interesting critique to which Chang and Shapiro respond. In this post, I shall consider over-utilization by those “not sick enough to benefit”: 23.4% of the 808 patients admitted to the UCLA Medical Center in the study by Chang et al. This over-utilization provides both a challenge and a win-win opportunity (better outcomes at lower cost) if we can meet the challenge.

In a forward-looking vision, which some may regard as optimistic, Anesi et al wrote:

In the year 2050 we will unambiguously reimburse healthcare based on value, and so there is good reason to suspect that we will have targeted and reduced many services that provide little or no benefit to patients…

It can be argued that ICU over-utilization, on average, provides no overall benefit, while significantly increasing costs. Gooch and Kahn observed that US spending on critical care represents nearly 3% of GDP, while:

In contrast, the United Kingdom spends only 0.1% of its gross domestic product on critical care services, with no evidence of worse patient outcomes and similar life expectancies as in the United States. Although there are many differences between these 2 countries, one significant difference is intensive care unit (ICU) bed supply. The United States has 25 ICU beds per 100 000 people, as compared with 5 per 100 000 in the United Kingdom. As a result, ICU case-mix differs substantially. In the United Kingdom, the majority of ICU patients are at high risk for death, whereas in the United States, many patients are admitted to the ICU for observation.

As observed by Halpern, these differences come at a significant cost in the US:

The number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the United States has continued to increase over the last 3 decades, as have ICU utilization rates and costs, and this despite the lack of any federal, regional, or critical care society mandates to justify these increases. Some experts believe that the increase in the number of ICU beds has led to inappropriate use of these beds by patients who are either too healthy or too sick to benefit from intensive care. This may in part explain the stable national ICU occupancy rate of approximately 68% between 1985 and 2010 and suggests that ICU utilization has simply risen to meet the increased number of beds.

Emphasis added. I shall consider here only ICU usage by patients too healthy to benefit. Although the economics behind reducing ICU over-utilization by “those not sick enough to benefit” appears simple, the underlying cause is in fact likely complex.

icu-costs-fig-1

This one appears easy: lower costs and potentially better outcomes

At the same time, I recall several caveats, well known to health economists, but important in planning and communication:

  1. We expect ICUs to be available when needed, including for emergencies and disasters,
  2. ICUs have high fixed costs,
  3. Decision-making is critical: incremental costs of adding capacity become fixed costs in the future.

Chris Sampson recently reviewed a study aimed at overconsumption or misconsumption (a consequence of over-utilization). The authors of that paper suggest that “cultural change might be required to achieve significant shifts in clinical behaviour.” Chris laments that this study did not ‘dig deeper’; here we aim to dig deeper in one specific area: ICU triage for patients “not sick enough to benefit.” More questions than answers at this stage, but hopefully the questions will ultimately lead to answers.

I begin by stepping back: economic decisions frequently involve compromises in allocating scarce resources. Decisions in health economics are frequently no different. How scarce are ICU resources? What happens if they are less scarce? What are the costs? Increasing availability can frequently lead to increased utilization, a phenomenon called “demand elasticity”. For example, increasing expressway/motorway capacity “can lead to increased traffic as new drivers seize the opportunity to travel on the larger road”, and thus no reduction in travel time. Gooch and Kahn further note that:

The presence of demand elasticity in decisions regarding ICU care has major implications for health care delivery and financing. Primarily, this indicates it is possible to reduce the costs of US hospital care by constraining ICU bed supply, perhaps through certificate of need laws or other legislation.

I offer a highly simplified sketch of how ICU over-utilization by those “not sick enough to benefit” is one driver of a vicious cycle in ICU cost growth.

icu-costs-fig-2

ICU over-utilization by patients “not sick enough to benefit” as a driver for ICU demand elasticity

Who (if anyone) is at fault for this ICU vicious cycle? Chang and Shapiro offer one suggestion:

For medical conditions where ICU care is frequently provided, but may not always be necessary, institutions that utilize ICUs more frequently are more likely to perform invasive procedures and have higher costs but have no improvement in hospital mortality. Hospitals had similar ICU utilization patterns across the 4 medical conditions, suggesting that systematic institutional factors may influence decisions to potentially overutilize ICU care.

Emphasis added. I note that demand elasticity is not in itself bad; it must simply be recognized, controlled and used appropriately. As part of a discussion in print on the role of cost considerations in medical decisions, Du and Kahn write:

Although we argue that costs should not be factored into medical decision-making in the ICU, this does not mean that we should not strive toward healthcare cost reduction in other ways. One strategy is to devise systems of care that prevent unnecessary or unwanted ICU admissions—given the small amount of ICU care that is due to discretionary spending, the only real way to reduce ICU costs is to prevent ICU admissions in the first place.

Du and Kahn also argue for careful cost-effectiveness analyses, such as that supported by NICE in the UK:

These programs limit use of treatments that are not cost-effective, taking cost decisions out of the hands of physicians and putting them where they belong: in the hands of society at large… We will achieve real ICU savings only by encouraging a society committed to system-based reforms.

Emphasis added. One can debate “taking cost decisions out of the hands of physicians”, though Guidet & Beale‘s and Capuzzo & Rhodes‘s argument for more physician awareness of cost might provide a good intermediate position in this debate.

Finally, increasing ICU supply (that is, ICU beds) in response to well-conceived increases in ICU demand is not in itself bad; ICU supply must be able to respond to demands imposed by disasters or other emergencies. We need to seek out novel ways to provide this capacity without incurring potentially unnecessary fixed costs, perhaps from region-wide stockpiling of supplies and equipment, and region-wide pools of on-call physicians and other ICU personnel. In summary, current health-related literature offers a wide-ranging discussion of the growing costs of intensive care; in my opinion: more questions than answers at this stage, but hopefully the questions will ultimately lead to answers.

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