Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 6th January 2020

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.

Child sleep and mother labour market outcomes. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published January 2020

It’s pretty clear that sleep is important to almost all aspects of our lives and our well-being. So it is perhaps surprising that economists have paid relatively little attention to the ways in which the quality of sleep influences the ‘economic’ aspects of our lives. Part of the explanation might be that almost anything that you can imagine having an effect on your sleep is also likely to be affected by your sleep. Identifying causality is a challenge. This paper shows us how it’s done.

The study is focussed on the relationship between sleep and labour market outcomes in new mothers. There’s good reason to care about new mothers’ sleep because many new mothers report that lack of sleep is a problem and many suffer from mental and physical health problems that might relate to this. But the major benefit to this study is that the context provides a very nice instrument to help identify causality – children’s sleep. The study uses data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which seems like an impressive data set. The study recruited 14,541 pregnant women with due dates between 1991 and 1993, collecting data on mothers’ and children’s sleep quality and mothers’ labour market activity. The authors demonstrate that children’s sleep (in terms of duration and disturbances) affects the amount of sleep that mothers get. No surprise there. They then demonstrate that the amount of sleep that mothers get affects their labour market outcomes, in terms of their likelihood of being in employment, the number of hours they work, and household income. The authors also demonstrate that children’s sleep quality does not have a direct impact on mothers’ labour market outcomes except through its effect on mothers’ sleep. The causal mechanism seems difficult to refute.

Using a two-stage least squares model with a child’s sleep as an instrument for their mother’s sleep, the authors estimate the effect of mothers’ sleep on labour market outcomes. On average, a 30-minute increase in a mother’s sleep duration increases the number of hours she works by 8.3% and increases household income by 3.1%. But the study goes further (much further) by identifying the potential mechanisms for this effect, with numerous exploratory analyses. Less sleep makes mothers more likely to self-report having problems at work. It also makes mothers less likely to work full-time. Going even further, the authors test the impact of the UK Employment Rights Act 1996, which gave mothers the right to request flexible working. The effect of the Act was to reduce the impact of mothers’ sleep duration on labour market outcomes, with a 6 percentage points lower probability that mothers drop out of the labour force.

My only criticism of this paper is that the copy-editing is pretty poor! There are so many things in this study that are interesting in their own right but also signal need for further research. Unsurprisingly, the study identifies gender inequalities. No wonder men’s wages increase while women’s plateau. Personally, I don’t much care about labour market outcomes except insofar as they affect individuals’ well-being. Thanks to the impressive data set, the study can also show that the impact on women’s labour market outcomes is not simply a response to changing priorities with respect to work, implying that it is actually a problem. The study provides a lot of food for thought for policy-makers.

Health years in total: a new health objective function for cost-effectiveness analysis. Value in Health Published 23rd December 2019

It’s common for me to complain about papers on this blog, usually in relation to one of my (many) pet peeves. This paper is in a different category. It’s dangerous. I’m angry.

The authors introduce the concept of ‘health years in total’. It’s a simple idea that involves separating the QA and the LY parts of the QALY in order to make quality of life and life years additive instead of multiplicative. This creates the possibility of attaching value to life years over and above their value in terms of the quality of life that is experienced in them. ‘Health years’ can be generated at a rate of two per year because each life year is worth 1 and that 1 is added to what the authors call a ‘modified QALY’. This ‘modified QALY’ is based on the supposition that the number of life years in its estimation corresponds to the maximum number of life years available under any treatment scenario being considered. So, if treatment A provides 2 life years and treatment B provides 3 life years, you multiply the quality of life value of treatment A by 3 years and then add the number of actual life years (i.e. 2). On the face of it, this is as stupid as it sounds.

So why do it? Well, some people don’t like QALYs. A cabal of organisations, supposedly representing patients, has sought to undermine the use of cost-effectiveness analysis. For whatever reason, they have decided to pursue the argument that the QALY discriminates against people with disabilities, or anybody else who happens to be unwell. Depending on the scenario this is either untrue or patently desirable. But the authors of this paper seem happy to entertain the cabal. The foundation for the development of the ‘health years in total’ framework is explicitly based in the equity arguments forwarded by these groups. It’s designed to be a more meaningful alternative to the ‘equal value of life’ measure; a measure that has been used in the US context, which adds a value of 1 to life years regardless of their quality.

The paper does a nice job of illustrating the ‘health years in total’ approach compared with the QALY approach and the ‘equal value of life’ approach. There’s merit in considering alternatives to the QALY model, and there may be value in an ‘additive’ approach that in some way separates the valuation of life years from the valuation of health states. There may even be some ethical justification for the ‘health years in total’ framework. But, if there is, it isn’t provided by this paper. To frame the QALY as discriminatory in the way that the authors do, describing this feature as a ‘limitation’ of the QALY approach, and to present an alternative with no basis in ethics is, at best, foolish. In practice, the ‘health years in total’ calculation would favour life-extending treatments over those that improve health. There are some organisations with vested interests in this. Expect to see ‘health years in total’ obscuring decision-making in the United States in the near future.

The causal effect of education on chronic health conditions in the UK. Journal of Health Economics Published 23rd December 2019

Since the dawn of health economics, researchers have been interested in the ways in which education and health outcomes depend on one another. People with more education tend to be healthier. But identifying causal relationships in this context is almost impossible. Some studies have claimed that education has a positive (causal) effect on both general and specific health outcomes. But there are just as many studies that show no impact. This study attempts to solve the problem by throwing a lot of data at it.

The authors analyse the impact of two sets of reforms in the UK. First, the raising of the school leaving age in 1972, from 15 to 16 years. Second, the broader set of reforms that were implemented in the 1990s that resulted in a major increase in the number of people entering higher education. The study’s weapon is the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), which includes over 5 million observations from 1.5 million people. Part of the challenge of identifying the impact of education on health outcomes is that the effects can be expected to be observed over the long-term and can therefore be obscured by other long-term trends. To address this, the authors limit their analyses to people in narrow age ranges in correspondence with the times of the reforms. Thanks to the size of the data set, they still have more than 350,000 observations for each reform. The QLFS asks people to self-report having any of a set of 17 different chronic health conditions. These can be grouped in a variety of ways, or looked at individually. The analysis uses a regression discontinuity framework to test the impact of raising the school leaving age, with birth date acting as an instrument for the number of years spent in education. The analysis of the second reform is less precise, as there is no single discontinuity, so the model identifies variation between the relevant cohorts over the period. The models are used to test a variety of combinations of the chronic condition indicators.

In short, the study finds that education does not seem to have a causal effect on health, in terms of the number of chronic conditions or the probability of having any chronic condition. But, even with their massive data set, the authors cannot exclude the possibility that education does have an effect on health (whether positive or negative). This non-finding is consistent across both reforms and is robust to various specifications. There is one potentially important exception to this. Diabetes. Looking at the school leaving age reform, an additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of having diabetes by 3.6 percentage points. Given the potential for diabetes to depend heavily on an individual’s behaviour and choices, this seems to make sense. Kids, stay in school. Just don’t do it for the good of your health.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 23rd December 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.

The Internet and children’s psychological wellbeing. Journal of Health Economics Published 13th December 2019

Here at the blog, we like the Internet. We couldn’t exist without it. We vie for your attention along with all of the other content factories (or “friends”). But there’s a well-established sense that people – especially children – should moderate their consumption of Internet content. The Internet is pervasive and is now a fundamental part of our day-to-day lives, not simply an information source to which we turn when we need it. Almost all 12-15 year olds in the UK use the Internet. The ubiquity of the Internet makes it difficult to test its effects. But this paper has a good go at it.

This study is based on the idea that broadband speeds are a good proxy for Internet use. In England, a variety of public and private sector initiatives have resulted in a distorted market with quasi-random assigment of broadband speeds. The authors provide a very thorough explanation of children’s wellbeing in relation to the Internet, outlining a range of potential mechanisms.

The analysis combines data from the UK’s pre-eminent household panel survey (Understanding Society) with broadband speed data published by the UK regulator Ofcom. Six wellbeing outcomes are analysed from children’s self-reported responses. The questions ask children how they feel about their lives – measured on a seven-point scale – in relation to school work, appearance, family, friends, school attended, and life as a whole. An unbalanced panel of 6,310 children from 2012-2017 provides 13,938 observations from 3,765 different Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOA), with average broadband speeds for each LSOA for each year. Each of the six wellbeing outcomes is modelled with child-, neighbourhood- and time-specific fixed effects. The models’ covariates include a variety of indicators relating to the child, their parents, their household, and their local area.

A variety of models are tested, and the overall finding is that higher broadband speeds are negatively associated with all of the six wellbeing indicators. Wellbeing in relation to appearance shows the strongest effect; a 1% increase in broadband speed reduces happiness with appearance by around 0.6%. The authors explore a variety of potential mechanisms by running pairs of models between broadband speeds and the mechanism and between the mechanism and the outcomes. A key finding is that the data seem to support the ‘crowding out’ hypothesis. Higher broadband speeds are associated with children spending less time on activities such as sports, clubs, and real world social interactions, and these activities are in turn positively associated with wellbeing. The authors also consider different subgroups, finding that the effects are more detrimental for girls.

Where the paper falls down is that it doesn’t do anything to convince us that broadband speeds represent a good proxy for Internet use. It’s also not clear exactly what the proxy is meant to be for – use (e.g. time spent on the Internet) or access (i.e. having the option to use the Internet) – though the authors seem to be interested in the former. If that’s the case, the logic of the proxy is not obvious. If I want to do X on the Internet then higher speeds will enable me to do it in less time, in which case the proxy would capture the inverse of the desired indicator. The other problem I think we have is in the use of self-reported measures in this context. A key supposed mechanism for the effect is through ‘social comparison theory’, which we might reasonably expect to influence the way children respond to questions as well as – or instead of – their underlying wellbeing.

One-way sensitivity analysis for probabilistic cost-effectiveness analysis: conditional expected incremental net benefit. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 16th December 2019

Here we have one of those very citable papers that clearly specifies a part of cost-effectiveness analysis methodology. A better title for this paper could be Make one-way sensitivity analysis great again. The authors start out by – quite rightly – bashing the tornado diagram, mostly on the basis that it does not intuitively characterise the information that a decision-maker needs. Instead, the authors propose an approach to probabilistic one-way sensitivity analysis (POSA) that is a kind of simplified version of EVPPI (expected value of partially perfect information) analysis. Crucially, this approach does not assume that the various parameters of the analysis are independent.

The key quantity created by this analysis is the conditional expected incremental net monetary benefit (cINMB), conditional, that is, on the value of the parameter of interest. There are three steps to creating a plot of the POSA results: 1) rank the costs and outcomes for the sampled values of the parameter – say from the first to the last centile; 2) plug in a cost-effectiveness threshold value to calculate the cINMB at each sampled value; and 3) record the probability of observing each value of the parameter. You could use this information to present a tornado-style diagram, plotting the credible range of the cINMB. But it’s more useful to plot a line graph showing the cINMB at the different values of the parameter of interest, taking into account the probability that the values will actually be observed.

The authors illustrate their method using three different parameters from a previously published cost-effectiveness analysis, in each case simulating 15,000 Monte Carlo ‘inner loops’ for each of the 99 centiles. It took me a little while to get my head around the results that are presented, so there’s still some work to do around explaining the visuals to decision-makers. Nevertheless, this approach has the potential to become standard practice.

A head-on ordinal comparison of the composite time trade-off and the better-than-dead method. Value in Health Published 19th December 2019

For years now, methodologists have been trying to find a reliable way to value health states ‘worse than dead’. The EQ-VT protocol, used to value the EQ-5D-5L, includes the composite time trade-off (cTTO). The cTTO task gives people the opportunity to trade away life years in good health to avoid having to subsequently live in a state that they have identified as being ‘worse than dead’ (i.e. they would prefer to die immediately than to live in it). An alternative approach to this is the better-than-dead method, whereby people simply compare given durations in a health state to being dead. But are these two approaches measuring the same thing? This study sought to find out.

The authors recruited a convenience sample of 200 students and asked them to value seven different EQ-5D-5L health states that were close to zero in the Dutch tariff. Each respondent completed both a cTTO task and a better-than-dead task (the order varied) for each of the seven states. The analysis then looked at the extent to which there was agreement between the two methods in terms of whether states were identified as being better or worse than dead. Agreement was measured using counts and using polychoric correlations. Unsurprisingly, agreement was higher for those states that lay further from zero in the Dutch tariff. Around zero, there was quite a bit of disagreement – only 65% agreed for state 44343. Both approaches performed similarly with respect to consistency and test-retest reliability. Overall, the authors interpret these findings as meaning that the two methods are measuring the same underlying preferences.

I don’t find that very convincing. States were more often identified as worse than dead in the better-than-dead task, with 55% valued as such, compared with 37% in the cTTO. That seems like a big difference. The authors provide a variety of possible explanations for the differences, mostly relating to the way the tasks are framed. Or it might be that the complexity of the worse-than-dead task in the cTTO is so confusing and counterintuitive that respondents (intentionally or otherwise) avoid having to do it. For me, the findings reinforce the futility of trying to value health states in relation to being dead. If a slight change in methodology prevents a group of biomedical students from giving consistent assessments of whether or not a state is worse than being dead, what hope do we have?

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 28th October 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.

Spatial competition and quality: evidence from the English family doctor market. Journal of Health Economics [RePEc] Published 17th October 2019

Researchers will never stop asking questions about the role of competition in health care. There’s a substantial body of literature now suggesting that greater competition in the context of regulated prices may bring some quality benefits. But with weak indicators of quality and limited generalisability, it isn’t a closed case. One context in which evidence has been lacking is in health care beyond the hospital. In the NHS, an individual’s choice of GP practice is perhaps the context in which quality can be observed and choice most readily (and meaningfully) exercised. That’s where this study comes in. Aside from the horrible format of a ‘proper economics’ paper (where we start with spoilers and climax with robustness tests), it’s a good read.

The study relies on a measure of competition based on the number of rival GPs within a 2km radius. Number of GPs, that is, rather than number of practices. This is important, as the number of GPs per practice has been increasing. About 75% of a practice’s revenues are linked to the number of patients registered, wherein lies the incentive to compete with other practices for patients. And, in this context, research has shown that patient choice is responsive to indicators of quality. The study uses data for 2005-2012 from all GP practices in England, making it an impressive data set.

The measures of quality come from the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) and the General Practice Patient Survey (GPPS) – the former providing indicators of clinical quality and the latter providing indicators of patient experience. A series of OLS regressions are run on the different outcome measures, with practice fixed effects and various characteristics of the population. The models show that all of the quality indicators are improved by greater competition, but the effect is very small. For example, an extra competing GP within a 2km radius results in 0.035% increase in the percentage of the population for whom the QOF indicators have been achieved. The effects are a little stronger for the patient satisfaction indicators.

The paper reports a bunch of important robustness checks. For instance, the authors try to test whether practices select their locations based on the patient casemix, finding no evidence that they do. The authors even go so far as to test the impact of a policy change, which resulted in an exogenous increase in the number of GPs in some areas but not others. The main findings seem to have withstood all the tests. They also try out a lagged model, which gives similar results.

The findings from this study slot in comfortably with the existing body of research on the role of competition in the NHS. More competition might help to achieve quality improvement, but it hardly seems worthy of dedicating much effort or, importantly, much expense to the cause.

Worth living or worth dying? The views of the general public about allowing disabled children to die. Journal of Medical Ethics [PhilPapers] [PubMed] Published 15th October 2019

Recent years have seen a series of cases in the UK where (usually very young) children have been so unwell and with such a severe prognosis that someone (usually a physician) has judged that continued treatment is not warranted and that the child should be allowed to die. These cases have generated debate and outrage in the media. But what do people actually think?

This study recruited members of the public in the UK (n=130) to an online panel and asked about the decisions that participants would support. The survey had three parts. The first part set out six scenarios of hospitalised infants, which varied in terms of the infants’ physical and sensory abilities, cognitive capacity, level of suffering, and future prospects. Some of the cases approximated real cases that have received media coverage, and the participants were asked whether they thought that withdrawing treatment was justified in each case. In the second part of the survey, participants were asked about the factors that they believed were important in making such decisions. In the third part, participants answered a few questions about themselves and answered the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale.

The authors set up the concept of a ‘life not worth living’, based on the idea that net future well-being is ‘negative’, and supposing the individual’s own judgement were they able to provide it. In the first part of the survey, 88% indicated that life would be worse than death in at least one of the cases. In such cases, 65% thought that treatment withdrawal was ethically obligatory, while 33% thought that either decision was acceptable. Pain was considered the most important factor in making such decisions, followed by the presence of pleasure. Perhaps predictably for health economists familiar with the literature, about 42% of people thought that resources should be considered in the decision, while 40% thought they shouldn’t.

The paper includes an extensive discussion, with plenty of food for thought. In particular, it discusses the ways in which the findings might inform the debate between the ‘zero line view’, whereby treatment should be withdrawn at the point where life has no benefit, and the ‘threshold view’, which establishes a grey zone of ethical uncertainty, in which either decision is ethically acceptable. To some extent, the findings of this study support the need for a threshold approach. Ethical questions are rarely black and white.

How is the trade-off between adverse selection and discrimination risk affected by genetic testing? Theory and experiment. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 1st October 2019

A lot of people are worried about how knowledge of their genetic information could be used against them. The most obvious scenario is one in which insurers increase premiums – or deny coverage altogether – on the basis of genetic risk factors. There are two key regulatory options in this context – disclosure duty, whereby individuals are obliged to tell insurers about the outcome of genetic tests, or consent law, whereby people can keep the findings to themselves. This study explores how people behave under each of these regulations.

The authors set up a theoretical model in which individuals can choose whether to purchase a genetic test that can identify them as being either high-risk or low-risk of developing some generic illness. The authors outline utility functions under disclosure duty and consent law. Under disclosure duty, individuals face a choice between the certainty of not knowing their risk and receiving pooled insurance premiums, or a lottery in which they have to disclose their level of risk and receive a higher or lower premium accordingly. Under consent law, individuals will only reveal their test results if they are at low risk, thus securing lower premiums and contributing to adverse selection. As a result, individuals will be more willing to take a test under consent law than under disclosure duty, all else equal.

After setting out their model (at great length), the authors go on to describe an experiment that they conducted with 67 economics students, to elicit preferences within and between the different regulatory settings. The experiment was set up in a very generic way, not related to health at all. Participants were presented with a series of tasks across which the parameters representing the price of the test and the pooled premium were varied. All of the authors’ hypotheses were supported by the experiment. More people took tests under consent law. Higher test prices reduce the number of people taking tests. If prices are high enough, people will prefer disclosure duty. The likelihood that people take tests under consent law is increasing with the level of adverse selection. And people are very sensitive to the level of discrimination risk under disclosure duty.

It’s an interesting study, but I’m not sure how much it can tell us about genetic testing. Framing the experiment as entirely unrelated to health seems especially unwise. People’s risk preferences may be very different in the domain of real health than in the hypothetical monetary domain. In the real world, there’s a lot more at stake.

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