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 4th February 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.

Patient choice and provider competition – quality enhancing drivers in primary care? Social Science & Medicine Published 29th January 2019

There’s no shortage of studies in economics claiming to identify the impact (or lack of impact) of competition in the market for health care. The evidence has brought us close to a consensus that greater competition might improve quality, so long as providers don’t compete on price. However, many of these studies aren’t able to demonstrate the mechanism through which competition might improve quality, and the causality is therefore speculative. The research reported in this article was an attempt to see whether the supposed mechanisms for quality improvement actually exist. The authors distinguish between the demand-side mechanisms of competition-increasing quality-improving reforms (i.e. changes in patient behaviour) and the supply-side mechanisms (i.e. changes in provider behaviour), asserting that the supply-side has been neglected in the research.

The study is based on primary care in Sweden’s two largest cities, where patients can choose their primary care practice, which could be a private provider. Key is the fact that patients can switch between providers as often as they like, and with fewer barriers to doing so than in the UK. Prospective patients have access to some published quality indicators. With the goal of maximum variation, the researchers recruited 13 primary health care providers for semi-structured interviews with the practice manager and (in most cases) one or more of the practice GPs. The interview protocol included questions about the organisation of patient visits, information received about patients’ choices, market situation, reimbursement, and working conditions. Interview transcripts were coded and a framework established. Two overarching themes were ‘local market conditions’ and ‘feedback from patient choice’.

Most interviewees did not see competitors in the local market as a threat – conversely, providers are encouraged to cooperate on matters such as public health. Where providers did talk about competing, it was in terms of (speed of) access for patients, or in competition to recruit and keep staff. None of the interviewees were automatically informed of patients being removed from their list, and some managers reported difficulties in actually knowing which patients on their list were still genuinely on it. Even where these data were more readily available, nobody had access to information on reasons for patients leaving. Managers saw greater availability of this information as useful for quality improvement, while GPs tended to think it could be useful in ensuring continuity of care. Still, most expressed no desire to expand their market share. Managers reported using marketing efforts in response to greater competition generally, rather than as a response to observed changes within their practice. But most relied on reputation. Some reported becoming more service-minded as a result of choice reforms.

It seems that practices need more information to be able to act on competitive pressures. But, most practices don’t care about it because they don’t want to expand and they face no risk of there being a shortage of patients (in cities, at least). And, even if they did want to act on the information, chances are it would just create an opportunity for them to improve access as a way of cherry-picking younger and healthier people who demand convenience. Primary care providers (in this study, at least) are not income maximisers, but satisficers (they want to break-even), so there isn’t much scope for reforms to encourage providers to compete for new patients. Patient choice reforms may improve quality, but it isn’t clear that this has anything to do with competitive pressure.

Maximising the impact of patient reported outcome assessment for patients and society. BMJ [PubMed] Published 24th January 2019

Patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) have been touted as a way of improving patient care. Yet, their use around the world is fragmented. In this paper, the authors make some recommendations about how we might use PROMs to improve patient care. The authors summarise some of the benefits of using PROMs and discuss some of the ways that they’ve been used in the UK.

Five key challenges in the use of PROMs are specified: i) appropriate and consistent selection of the best measures; ii) ethical collection and reporting of PROM data; iii) data collection, analysis, reporting, and interpretation; iv) data logistics; and v) a lack of coordination and efficiency. To address these challenges, the authors recommend an ‘integrated’ approach. To achieve this, stakeholder engagement is important and a governance framework needs to be developed. A handy table of current uses is provided.

I can’t argue with what the paper proposes, but it outlines an idealised scenario rather than any firm and actionable recommendations. What the authors don’t discuss is the fact that the use of PROMs in the UK is flailing. The NHS PROMs programme has been scaled back, measures have been dropped from the QOF, the EQ-5D has been dropped from the GP Patient Survey. Perhaps we need bolder recommendations and new ideas to turn the tide.

Check your checklist: the danger of over- and underestimating the quality of economic evaluations. PharmacoEconomics – Open [PubMed] Published 24th January 2019

This paper outlines the problems associated with misusing methodological and reporting checklists. The author argues that the current number of checklists available in the context of economic evaluation and HTA (13, apparently) is ‘overwhelming’. Three key issues are discussed. First, researchers choose the wrong checklist. A previous review found that the Drummond, CHEC, and Philips checklists were regularly used in the wrong context. Second, checklists can be overinterpreted, resulting in incorrect conclusions. A complete checklist does not mean that a study is perfect, and different features are of varying importance in different studies. Third, checklists are misused, with researchers deciding which items are or aren’t relevant to their study, without guidance.

The author suggests that more guidance is needed and that a checklist for selecting the correct checklist could be the way to go. The issue of updating checklists over time – and who ought to be responsible for this – is also raised.

In general, the tendency seems to be to broaden the scope of general checklists and to develop new checklists for specific methodologies, requiring the application of multiple checklists. As methods develop, they become increasingly specialised and heterogeneous. I think there’s little hope for checklists in this context unless they’re pared down and used as a reminder of the more complex guidance that’s needed to specify suitable methods and achieve adequate reporting. ‘Check your checklist’ is a useful refrain, though I reckon ‘chuck your checklist’ can sometimes be a better strategy.

A systematic review of dimensions evaluating patient experience in chronic illness. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes [PubMed] Published 21st January 2019

Back to PROMs and PRE(xperience)Ms. This study sets out to understand what it is that patient-reported measures are being used to capture in the context of chronic illness. The authors conducted a systematic review, screening 2,375 articles and ultimately including 107 articles that investigated the measurement properties of chronic (physical) illness PROMs and PREMs.

29 questionnaires were about (health-related) quality of life, 19 about functional status or symptoms, 20 on feelings and attitudes about illness, 19 assessing attitudes towards health care, and 20 on patient experience. The authors provide some nice radar charts showing the percentage of questionnaires that included each of 12 dimensions: i) physical, ii) functional, iii) social, iv) psychological, v) illness perceptions, vi) behaviours and coping, vii) effects of treatment, viii) expectations and satisfaction, ix) experience of health care, x) beliefs and adherence to treatment, xi) involvement in health care, and xii) patient’s knowledge.

The study supports the idea that a patient’s lived experience of illness and treatment, and adaptation to that, has been judged to be important in addition to quality of life indicators. The authors recommend that no measure should try to capture everything because there are simply too many concepts that could be included. Rather, researchers should specify the domains of interest and clearly define them for instrument development.

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