Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 11th 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.

Contest models highlight inherent inefficiencies of scientific funding competitions. PLoS Biology [PubMed] Published 2nd January 2019

If you work in research you will have no doubt thought to yourself at one point that you spend more time applying to do research than actually doing it. You can spend weeks working on (what you believe to be) a strong proposal only for it to fail against other strong bids. That time could have been spent collecting and analysing data. Indeed, the opportunity cost of writing extensive proposals can be very high. The question arises as to whether there is another method of allocating research funding that reduces this waste and inefficiency. This paper compares the proposal competition to a partial lottery. In this lottery system, proposals are short, and among those that meet some qualifying standard those that are funded are selected at random. This system has the benefit of not taking up too much time but has the cost of reducing the average scientific value of the winning proposals. The authors compare the two approaches using an economic model of contests, which takes into account factors like proposal strength, public benefits, benefits to the scientist like reputation and prestige, and scientific value. Ultimately they conclude that, when the number of awards is smaller than the number of proposals worthy of funding, the proposal competition is inescapably inefficient. It means that researchers have to invest heavily to get a good project funded, and even if it is good enough it may still not get funded. The stiffer the competition the more researchers have to work to win the award. And what little evidence there is suggests that the format of the application makes little difference to the amount of time spent by researchers on writing it. The lottery mechanism only requires the researcher to propose something that is good enough to get into the lottery. Far less time would therefore be devoted to writing it and more time spent on actual science. I’m all for it!

Preventability of early versus late hospital readmissions in a national cohort of general medicine patients. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMed] Published 5th June 2018

Hospital quality is hard to judge. We’ve discussed on this blog before the pitfalls of using measures such as adjusted mortality differences for this purpose. Just because a hospital has higher than expected mortality does not mean those death could have been prevented with higher quality care. More thorough methods assess errors and preventable harm in care. Case note review studies have suggested as little as 5% of deaths might be preventable in England and Wales. Another paper we have covered previously suggests then that the predictive value of standardised mortality ratios for preventable deaths may be less than 10%.

Another commonly used metric is readmission rates. Poor care can mean patients have to return to the hospital. But again, the question remains as to how preventable these readmissions are. Indeed, there may also be substantial differences between those patients who are readmitted shortly after discharge and those for whom it may take a longer time. This article explores the preventability of early and late readmissions in ten hospitals in the US. It uses case note review and a number of reviewers to evaluate preventability. The headline figures are that 36% of early readmissions are considered preventable compared to 23% of late readmissions. Moreover, it was considered that the early readmissions were most likely to have been preventable at the hospital whereas for late readmissions, an outpatient clinic or the home would have had more impact. All in all, another paper which provides evidence to suggest crude, or even adjusted rates, are not good indicators of hospital quality.

Visualisation in Bayesian workflow. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society) [RePEc] Published 15th January 2019

This article stems from a broader programme of work from these authors on good “Bayesian workflow”. That is to say, if we’re taking a Bayesian approach to analysing data, what steps ought we to be taking to ensure our analyses are as robust and reliable as possible? I’ve been following this work for a while as this type of pragmatic advice is invaluable. I’ve often read empirical papers where the authors have chosen, say, a logistic regression model with covariates x, y, and z and reported the outcomes, but at no point ever justified why this particular model might be any good at all for these data or the research objective. The key steps of the workflow include, first, exploratory data analysis to help set up a model, and second, performing model checks before estimating model parameters. This latter step is important: one can generate data from a model and set of prior distributions, and if the data that this model generates looks nothing like what we would expect the real data to look like, then clearly the model is not very good. Following this, we should check whether our inference algorithm is doing its job, for example, are the MCMC chains converging? We can also conduct posterior predictive model checks. These have had their criticisms in the literature for using the same data to both estimate and check the model which could lead to the model generalising poorly to new data. Indeed in a recent paper of my own, posterior predictive checks showed poor fit of a model to my data and that a more complex alternative was better fitting. But other model fit statistics, which penalise numbers of parameters, led to the alternative conclusions. So the simpler model was preferred on the grounds that the more complex model was overfitting the data. So I would argue posterior predictive model checks are a sensible test to perform but must be interpreted carefully as one step among many. Finally, we can compare models using tools like cross-validation.

This article discusses the use of visualisation to aid in this workflow. They use the running example of building a model to estimate exposure to small particulate matter from air pollution across the world. Plots are produced for each of the steps and show just how bad some models can be and how we can refine our model step by step to arrive at a convincing analysis. I agree wholeheartedly with the authors when they write, “Visualization is probably the most important tool in an applied statistician’s toolbox and is an important complement to quantitative statistical procedures.”

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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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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 17th September 2018

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.

Does competition from private surgical centres improve public hospitals’ performance? Evidence from the English National Health Service. Journal of Public Economics Published 11th September 2018

This study looks at proper (supply-side) privatisation in the NHS. The subject is the government-backed introduction of Independent Sector Treatment Centres (ISTCs), which, in the name of profit, provide routine elective surgical procedures to NHS patients. ISTCs were directed to areas with high waiting times and began rolling out from 2003.

The authors take pre-surgery length of stay as a proxy for efficiency and hypothesise that the entry of ISTCs would improve efficiency in nearby NHS hospitals. They also hypothesise that the ISTCs would cream-skim healthier patients, leaving NHS hospitals to foot the bill for a more challenging casemix. Difference-in-difference regressions are used to test these hypotheses, the treatment group being those NHS hospitals close to ISTCs and the control being those not likely to be affected. The authors use patient-level Hospital Episode Statistics from 2002-2008 for elective hip and knee replacements.

The key difficulty here is that the trend in length of stay changed dramatically at the time ISTCs began to be introduced, regardless of whether a hospital was affected by their introduction. This is because there was a whole suite of policy and structural changes being implemented around this period, many targeting hospital efficiency. So we’re looking at comparing new trends, not comparing changes in existing levels or trends.

The authors’ hypotheses prove right. Pre-surgery length of stay fell in exposed hospitals by around 16%. The ISTCs engaged in risk selection, meaning that NHS hospitals were left with sicker patients. What’s more, the savings for NHS hospitals (from shorter pre-surgery length of stay) were more than undermined by an increase in post-surgery length of stay, which may have been due to the change in casemix.

I’m not sure how useful difference-in-difference is in this case. We don’t know what the trend would have been without the intervention because the pre-intervention trend provides no clues about it and, while the outcome is shown to be unrelated to selection into the intervention, we don’t know whether selection into the ISTC intervention was correlated with exposure to other policy changes. The authors do their best to quell these concerns about parallel trends and correlated policy shocks, and the results appear robust.

Broadly speaking, the study satisfies my prior view of for-profit providers as leeches on the NHS. Still, I’m left a bit unsure of the findings. The problem is, I don’t see the causal mechanism. Hospitals had the financial incentive to be efficient and achieve a budget surplus without competition from ISTCs. It’s hard (for me, at least) to see how reduced length of stay has anything to do with competition unless hospitals used it as a basis for getting more patients through the door, which, given that ISTCs were introduced in areas with high waiting times, the hospitals could have done anyway.

While the paper describes a smart and thorough analysis, the findings don’t tell us whether ISTCs are good or bad. Both the length of stay effect and the casemix effect are ambiguous with respect to patient outcomes. If only we had some PROMs to work with…

One method, many methodological choices: a structured review of discrete-choice experiments for health state valuation. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 8th September 2018

Discrete choice experiments (DCEs) are in vogue when it comes to health state valuation. But there is disagreement about how they should be conducted. Studies can differ in terms of the design of the choice task, the design of the experiment, and the analysis methods. The purpose of this study is to review what has been going on; how have studies differed and what could that mean for our use of the value sets that are estimated?

A search of PubMed for valuation studies using DCEs – including generic and condition-specific measures – turned up 1132 citations, of which 63 were ultimately included in the review. Data were extracted and quality assessed.

The ways in which the studies differed, and the ways in which they were similar, hint at what’s needed from future research. The majority of recent studies were conducted online. This could be problematic if we think self-selecting online panels aren’t representative. Most studies used five or six attributes to describe options and many included duration as an attribute. The methodological tweaks necessary to anchor at 0=dead were a key source of variation. Those using duration varied in terms of the number of levels presented and the range of duration (from 2 months to 50 years). Other studies adopted alternative strategies. In DCE design, there is a necessary trade-off between statistical efficiency and the difficulty of the task for respondents. A variety of methods have been employed to try and ease this difficulty, but there remains a lack of consensus on the best approach. An agreed criterion for this trade-off could facilitate consistency. Some of the consistency that does appear in the literature is due to conformity with EuroQol’s EQ-VT protocol.

Unfortunately, for casual users of DCE valuations, all of this means that we can’t just assume that a DCE is a DCE is a DCE. Understanding the methodological choices involved is important in the application of resultant value sets.

Trusting the results of model-based economic analyses: is there a pragmatic validation solution? PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 6th September 2018

Decision models are almost never validated. This means that – save for a superficial assessment of their outputs – they are taken at good faith. That should be a worry. This article builds on the experience of the authors to outline why validation doesn’t take place and to try to identify solutions. This experience includes a pilot study in France, NICE Evidence Review Groups, and the perspective of a consulting company modeller.

There are a variety of reasons why validation is not conducted, but resource constraints are a big part of it. Neither HTA agencies, nor modellers themselves, have the time to conduct validation and verification exercises. The core of the authors’ proposed solution is to end the routine development of bespoke models. Models – or, at least, parts of models – need to be taken off the shelf. Thus, open source or otherwise transparent modelling standards are a prerequisite for this. The key idea is to create ‘standard’ or ‘reference’ models, which can be extensively validated and tweaked. The most radical aspect of this proposal is that they should be ‘freely available’.

But rather than offering a path to open source modelling, the authors offer recommendations for how we should conduct ourselves until open source modelling is realised. These include the adoption of a modular and incremental approach to modelling, combined with more transparent reporting. I agree; we need a shift in mindset. Yet, the barriers to open source models are – I believe – the same barriers that would prevent these recommendations from being realised. Modellers don’t have the time or the inclination to provide full and transparent reporting. There is no incentive for modellers to do so. The intellectual property value of models means that public release of incremental developments is not seen as a sensible thing to do. Thus, the authors’ recommendations appear to me to be dependent on open source modelling, rather than an interim solution while we wait for it. Nevertheless, this is the kind of innovative thinking that we need.

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