Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 4th June 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.

A qualitative investigation of the health economic impacts of bariatric surgery for obesity and implications for improved practice in health economics. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 1st June 2018

Few would question the ‘economic’ nature of the challenge of obesity. Bariatric surgery is widely recommended for severe cases but, in many countries, the supply is not sufficient to satisfy the demand. In this context, this study explores the value of qualitative research in informing economic evaluation. The authors assert that previous economic evaluations have adopted a relatively narrow focus and thus might underestimate the expected value of bariatric surgery. But rather than going and finding data on what they think might be additional dimensions of value, the authors ask patients. Emotional capital, ‘societal’ (i.e. non-health) impacts, and externalities are identified as theories for the types of value that might be derived from bariatric surgery. These theories were used to guide the development of questions and prompts that were used in a series of 10 semi-structured focus groups. Thematic analysis identified the importance of emotional costs and benefits as part of the ‘socioemotional personal journey’ associated with bariatric surgery. Out-of-pocket costs were also identified as being important, with self-funding being a challenge for some respondents. The information seems useful in a variety of ways. It helps us understand the value of bariatric surgery and how individuals make decisions in this context. This information could be used to determine the structure of economic evaluations or the data that are collected and used. The authors suggest that an EQ-5D bolt-on should be developed for ’emotional capital’ but, given that this ‘theory’ was predefined by the authors and does not arise from the qualitative research as being an important dimension of value alongside the existing EQ-5D dimensions, that’s a stretch.

Developing accessible, pictorial versions of health-related quality-of-life instruments suitable for economic evaluation: a report of preliminary studies conducted in Canada and the United Kingdom. PharmacoEconomics – Open [PubMed] Published 25th May 2018

I’ve been telling people about this study for ages (apologies, authors, if that isn’t something you wanted to read!). In my experience, the need for more (cognitively / communicatively) accessible outcome measures is widely recognised by health researchers working in contexts where this is relevant, such as stroke. If people can’t read or understand the text-based descriptors that make up (for example) the EQ-5D, then we need some alternative format. You could develop an entirely new measure. Or, as the work described in this paper set out to do, you could modify existing measures. There are three descriptive systems described in this study: i) a pictorial EQ-5D-3L by the Canadian team, ii) a pictorial EQ-5D-3L by the UK team, and iii) a pictorial EQ-5D-5L by the UK team. Each uses images to represent the different levels of the different dimensions. For example, the mobility dimension might show somebody walking around unaided, walking with aids, or in bed. I’m not going to try and describe what they all look like, so I’ll just encourage you to take a look at the Supplementary Material (click here to download it). All are described as ‘pilot’ instruments and shouldn’t be picked up and used at this stage. Different approaches were used in the development of the measures, and there are differences between the measures in terms of the images selected and the ways in which they’re presented. But each process referred to conventions in aphasia research, used input from clinicians, and consulted people with aphasia and/or their carers. The authors set out several remaining questions and avenues for future research. The most interesting possibility to most readers will be the notion that we could have a ‘generic’ pictorial format for the EQ-5D, which isn’t aphasia-specific. This will require continued development of the pictorial descriptive systems, and ultimately their validation.

QALYs in 2018—advantages and concerns. JAMA [PubMed] Published 24th May 2018

It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the authors of this article – and indeed all US-based purveyors of economic evaluation in health care. With respect to social judgments about the value of health technologies, the US’s proverbial head remains well and truly buried in the sand. This article serves as a primer and an enticement for the use of QALYs. The ‘concerns’ cited relate almost exclusively to decision rules applied to QALYs, rather than the underlying principles of QALYs, presumably because the authors didn’t feel they could ignore the points made by QALY opponents (even if those arguments are vacuous). What it boils down to is this: trade-offs are necessary, and QALYs can be used to promote value in those trade-offs, so unless you offer some meaningful alternative then QALYs are here to stay. Thankfully, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) has recently added some clout to the undeniable good sense of QALYs, so the future is looking a little brighter. Suck it up, America!

The impact of hospital costing methods on cost-effectiveness analysis: a case study. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 22nd May 2018

Plugging different cost estimates into your cost-effectiveness model could alter the headline results of your evaluation. That might seems obvious, but there are a variety of ways in which the selection of unit costs might be somewhat arbitrary or taken for granted. This study considers three alternative sources of information for hospital-based unit costs for hip fractures in England: (a) spell-level tariffs, (b) finished consultant episode (FCE) reference costs, and (c) spell-level reference costs. Source (b) provides, in theory, a more granular version of (a), describing individual episodes within a person’s hospital stay. Reference costs are estimated on the basis of hospital activity, while tariffs are prices estimated on the basis of historic reference costs. The authors use a previously reported cohort state transition model to evaluate different models of care for hip fracture and explore how the use of the different cost figures affects their results. FCE-level reference costs produced the highest total first-year hospital care costs (£14,440), and spell-level tariffs the lowest (£10,749). The more FCEs within a spell, the greater the discrepancy. This difference in costs affected ICERs, such that the net-benefit-optimising decision would change. The study makes an important point – that selection of unit costs matters. But it isn’t clear why the difference exists. It could just be due to a lack of precision in reference costs in this context (rather than a lack of accuracy, per se), or it could be that reference costs misestimate the true cost of care across the board. Without clear guidance on how to select the most appropriate source of unit costs, these different costing methodologies represent another source of uncertainty in modelling, which analysts should consider and explore.


Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 7th May 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.

Building an international health economics teaching network. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 2nd May 2018

The teaching on my health economics MSc (at Sheffield) was very effective. Experts from our subdiscipline equipped me with the skills that I went on to use on a daily basis in my first job, and to this day. But not everyone gets the same opportunity. And there were only 8 people on my course. Part of the background to the new movement described in this editorial is the observation that demand for health economists outstrips supply. Great for us jobbing health economists, but suboptimal for society. The shortfall has given rise to people teaching health economics (or rather, economic evaluation methods) without any real training in economics. The main purpose of this editorial is to call on health economists (that’s me and you) to pull our weight and contribute to a collective effort to share, improve, and ultimately deliver high-quality teaching resources. The Health Economics education website, which is now being adopted by iHEA, should be the starting point. And there’s now a Teaching Health Economics Special Interest Group. So chip in! This paper got me thinking about how the blog could play its part in contributing to the infrastructure of health economics teaching, so expect to see some developments on that front.

Including future consumption and production in economic evaluation of interventions that save life-years: commentary. PharmacoEconomics – Open [PubMed] Published 30th April 2018

When people live longer, they spend their extra life-years consuming and producing. How much consuming and producing they do affects social welfare. The authors of this commentary are very clear about the point they wish to make, so I’ll just quote them: “All else equal, a given number of quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) from life prolongation will normally be more costly from a societal perspective than the same number of QALYs from programmes that improve quality of life”. This is because (in high-income countries) most people whose life can be extended are elderly, so they’re not very productive. They’re likely to create a net cost for society (given how we measure value). Asserting that the cost is ‘worth it’ at any level, or simply ignoring the matter, isn’t really good enough because providing life extension will be at the expense of some life-improving treatments which may – were these costs taken into account – improve social welfare. The authors’ estimates suggest that the societal cost of life-extension is far greater than current methods admit. Consumption costs and production gains should be estimated and should be given some weight in decision-making. The question is not whether we should measure consumption costs and production gains – clearly, we should. The question is what weight they ought to be given in decision-making.

Methods for the economic evaluation of changes to the organisation and delivery of health services: principal challenges and recommendations. Health Economics, Policy and Law [PubMedPublished 20th April 2018

The late, great, Alan Maynard liked to speak about redisorganisations in the NHS: large-scale changes to the way services are organised and delivered, usually without a supporting evidence base. This problem extends to smaller-scale service delivery interventions. There’s no requirement for policy-makers to demonstrate that changes will be cost-effective. This paper explains why applying methods of health technology assessment to service interventions can be tricky. The causal chain of effects may be less clear when interventions are applied at the organisational level rather than individual level, and the results will be heavily dependent on the present context. The author outlines five challenges in conducting economic evaluations for service interventions: i) conducting ex-ante evaluations, ii) evaluating impact in terms of QALYs, iii) assessing costs and opportunity costs, iv) accounting for spillover effects, and v) generalisability. Those identified as most limiting right now are the challenges associated with estimating costs and QALYs. Cost data aren’t likely to be readily available at the individual level and may not be easily identifiable and divisible. So top-down programme-level costs may be all we have to work with, and they may lack precision. QALYs may be ‘attached’ to service interventions by applying a tariff to individual patients or by supplementing the analysis with simulation modelling. But more methodological development is still needed. And until we figure it out, health spending is likely to suffer from allocative inefficiencies.

Vog: using volcanic eruptions to estimate the health costs of particulates. The Economic Journal [RePEc] Published 12th April 2018

As sources of random shocks to a system go, a volcanic eruption is pretty good. A major policy concern around the world – particularly in big cities – is the impact of pollution. But the short-term impact of particulate pollution is difficult to identify because there is high correlation amongst pollutants. In this study, the authors use the eruption activity of Kīlauea on the island of Hawaiʻi as a source of variation in particulate pollution. Vog – volcanic smog – includes sulphur dioxide and is similar to particulate pollution in cities, but the fact that Hawaiʻi does not have the same levels of industrial pollutants means that the authors can more cleanly identify the impact on health outcomes. In 2008 there was a big increase in Kīlauea’s emissions when a new vent opened, and the level of emissions fluctuates daily, so there’s plenty of variation to play with. The authors have two main sources of data: emergency admissions (and their associated charges) and air quality data. A parsimonious OLS model is used to estimate the impact of air quality on the total number of admissions for a given day in a given region, with fixed effects for region and date. An instrumental variable approach is also used, which looks at air quality on a neighbouring island and uses wind direction to specify the instrumental variable. The authors find that pulmonary-related emergency admissions increased with pollution levels. Looking at the instrumental variable analysis, a one standard deviation increase in particulate pollution results in 23-36% more pulmonary-related emergency visits (depending on which measure of particulate pollution is being used). Importantly, there’s no impact on fractures, which we wouldn’t expect to be influenced by the particulate pollution. The impact is greatest for babies and young children. And it’s worth bearing in mind that avoidance behaviours – e.g. people staying indoors on ‘voggy’ days – are likely to reduce the impact of the pollution. Despite the apparent lack of similarity between Hawaiʻi and – for example – London, this study provides strong evidence that policy-makers should consider the potential savings to the health service when tackling particulate pollution.


Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 12th February 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.

Tuskegee and the health of black men. The Quarterly Journal of Economics [RePEc] Published February 2018

In 1932, a study often considered the most infamous and potentially most unethical in U.S. medical history began. Researchers in Alabama enrolled impoverished black men in a research program designed to examine the effects of syphilis under the guise of receiving government-funded health care. The study was known as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. For 40 years the research subjects were not informed they had syphilis nor were they treated, even after penicillin was shown to be effective. The study was terminated in 1972 after its details were leaked to the press; numerous men died, 40 wives contracted syphilis, and a number of children were born with congenital syphilis. It is no surprise then that there is distrust among African Americans in the medical system. The aim of this article is to examine whether the distrust engendered by the Tuskegee study could have contributed to the significant differences in health outcomes between black males and other groups. To derive a causal estimate the study makes use of a number of differences: black vs non-black, for obvious reasons; male vs female, since the study targeted males, and also since women were more likely to have had contact with and hence higher trust in the medical system; before vs after; and geographic differences, since proximity to the location of the study may be informative about trust in the local health care facilities. A wide variety of further checks reinforce the conclusions that the study led to a reduction in health care utilisation among black men of around 20%. The effect is particularly pronounced in those with low education and income. Beyond elucidating the indirect harms caused by this most heinous of studies, it illustrates the importance of trust in mediating the effectiveness of public institutions. Poor reputations caused by negligence and malpractice can spread far and wide – the mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal may be just such an example.

The economic consequences of hospital admissions. American Economic Review [RePEcPublished February 2018

That this paper’s title recalls that of Keynes’s book The Economic Consequences of the Peace is to my mind no mistake. Keynes argued that a generous and equitable post-war settlement was required to ensure peace and economic well-being in Europe. The slow ‘economic privation’ driven by the punitive measures and imposed austerity of the Treaty of Versailles would lead to crisis. Keynes was evidently highly critical of the conference that led to the Treaty and resigned in protest before its end. But what does this have to do with hospital admissions? Using an ‘event study’ approach – in essence regressing the outcome of interest on covariates including indicators of time relative to an event – the paper examines the impact hospital admissions have on a range of economic outcomes. The authors find that for insured non-elderly adults “hospital admissions increase out-of-pocket medical spending, unpaid medical bills, and bankruptcy, and reduce earnings, income, access to credit, and consumer borrowing.” Similarly, they estimate that hospital admissions among this same group are responsible for around 4% of bankruptcies annually. These losses are often not insured, but they note that in a number of European countries the social welfare system does provide assistance for lost wages in the event of hospital admission. Certainly, this could be construed as economic privation brought about by a lack of generosity of the state. Nevertheless, it also reinforces the fact that negative health shocks can have adverse consequences through a person’s life beyond those directly caused by the need for medical care.

Is health care infected by Baumol’s cost disease? Test of a new model. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEcPublished 9th February 2018

A few years ago we discussed Baumol’s theory of the ‘cost disease’ and an empirical study trying to identify it. In brief, the theory supposes that spending on health care (and other labour-intensive or creative industries) as a proportion of GDP increases, at least in part, because these sectors experience the least productivity growth. Productivity increases the fastest in sectors like manufacturing and remuneration increases as a result. However, this would lead to wages in the most productive sectors outstripping those in the ‘stagnant’ sectors. For example, salaries for doctors would end up being less than those for low-skilled factory work. Wages, therefore, increase in the stagnant sectors despite a lack of productivity growth. The consequence of all this is that as GDP grows, the proportion spent on stagnant sectors increases, but importantly the absolute amount spent on the productive sectors does not decrease. The share of the pie gets bigger but the pie is growing at least as fast, as it were. To test this, this article starts with a theoretic two-sector model to develop some testable predictions. In particular, the authors posit that the cost disease implies: (i) productivity is related to the share of labour in the health sector, and (ii) productivity is related to the ratio of prices in the health and non-health sectors. Using data from 28 OECD countries between 1995 and 2016 as well as further data on US industry group, they find no evidence to support these predictions, nor others generated by their model. One reason for this could be that wages in the last ten years or more have not risen in line with productivity in manufacturing or other ‘productive’ sectors, or that productivity has indeed increased as fast as the rest of the economy in the health care sector. Indeed, we have discussed productivity growth in the health sector in England and Wales previously. The cost disease may well then not be a cause of rising health care costs – nevertheless, health care need is rising and we should still expect costs to rise concordantly.