Lazaros Andronis’s journal round-up for 4th September 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

The effect of spending cuts on teen pregnancy. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published July 2017

High teenage pregnancy rates are an important concern that features high in many countries’ social policy agendas. In the UK, a country which has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, efforts to tackle the issue have been spearheaded by the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, an initiative aiming to halve under-18 pregnancy rates by offering access to sex education and contraception. However, the recent spending cuts have led to reductions in grants to local authorities, many of which have, in turn, limited or cut a number of teenage pregnancy-related programmes. This has led to vocal opposition by politicians and organisations, who argue that cuts jeopardise the reductions in teenage pregnancy rates seen in previous years. In this paper, Paton and Wright set out to examine whether this is the case; that is, whether cuts to Teenage Pregnancy Strategy-related services have had an impact on teenage pregnancy rates. To do so, the authors used panel data from 149 local authorities in England collected between 2009 and 2014. To capture changes in teenage pregnancy rates across local authorities over the specified period, the authors used a fixed effects model which assumed that under-18 conception rates are a function of annual expenditure on teenage pregnancy services per 13-17 year female in the local authority, and a set of other socioeconomic variables acting as controls. Area and year dummies were also included in the model to account for unobservable effects that relate to particular years and localities and a number of additional analysis were run to get around spurious correlations between expenditure and pregnancy rates. Overall, findings showed that areas which implemented bigger cuts to teenage pregnancy-targeting programmes have, on average, seen larger drops in teenage pregnancy rates. However, these drops are, in absolute terms, small (e.g. a 10% reduction in expenditure is associated with a 0.25% decrease in teenage conception rates). Various explanations can be put forward to interpret these findings, one of which is that cuts might have trimmed off superfluous or underperforming elements of the programme. If this is the case, Paton and Wright’s findings offer some support to arguments that spending cuts may not always be bad for the public.

Young adults’ experiences of neighbourhood smoking-related norms and practices: a qualitative study exploring place-based social inequalities in smoking. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published September 2017

Smoking is a universal problem affecting millions of people around the world and Canada’s young adults are no exception. As in most countries, smoking prevalence and initiation is highest amongst young groups, which is bad news, as many people who start smoking at a young age continue to smoke throughout adulthood. Evidence suggests that there is a strong socioeconomic gradient in smoking, which can be seen in the fact that smoking prevalence is unequally distributed according to education and neighbourhood-level deprivation, being a greater problem in more deprived areas. This offers an opportunity for local-level interventions that may be more effective than national strategies. Though, to come up with such interventions, policy makers need to understand how neighbourhoods might shape, encourage or tolerate certain attitudes towards smoking. To understand this, Glenn and colleagues saw smoking as a practice that is closely related to local smoking norms and social structures, and sought to get young adult smokers’ views on how their neighbourhood affects their attitudes towards smoking. Within this context, the authors carried out a number of focus groups with young adult smokers who lived in four different neighbourhoods, during which they asked questions such as “do you think your neighbourhood might be encouraging or discouraging people to smoke?” Findings showed that some social norms, attitudes and practices were common among neighbourhoods of the same SES. Participants from low-SES neighbourhoods reported more tolerant and permissive local smoking norms, whereas in more affluent neighbourhoods, participants felt that smoking was more contained and regulated. While young smokers from high SES neighbourhoods expressed some degree of alignment and agency with local smoking norms and practices, smokers in low SES described smoking as inevitable in their neighbourhood. Of interest is how individuals living in different SES areas saw anti-smoking regulations: while young smokers in affluent areas advocate social responsibility (and downplay the role of regulations), their counterparts in poorer areas called for more protection and spoke in favour of greater government intervention and smoking restrictions. Glenn and colleagues’ findings serve to highlight the importance of context in designing public health measures, especially when such measures affect different groups in entirely different ways.

Cigarette taxes, smoking—and exercise? Health Economics [PubMed] Published August 2017

Evidence suggests that rises in cigarette taxes have a positive effect on smoking reduction and/or cessation. However, it is also plausible that the effect of tax hikes extends beyond smoking, to decisions about exercise. To explore whether this proposition is supported by empirical evidence, Conway and Niles put together a simple conceptual framework, which assumes that individuals aim to maximise the utility they get from exercise, smoking, health (or weight management) and other goods subject to market inputs (e.g. medical care, diet aids) and time and budget constraints. Much of the data for this analysis came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) in the US, which includes survey participants’ demographic characteristics (age, gender), as well as answers to questions about physical activities and exercise (e.g. intensity and time per week spent on activities) and smoking behaviour (e.g. current smoking status, number of cigarettes smoked per day). Survey data were subsequently combined with changes in cigarette taxes and other state-level variables. Conway and Niles’s results suggest that increased cigarette costs reduce both smoking and exercise, with the decline in exercise being more pronounced among heavy and regular smokers. However, the direction of the effect varied according to one’s age and smoking experience (e.g. higher cigarette cost increased physical activity among recent quitters), which highlights the need for caution in drawing conclusions about the exact mechanism that underpins this relationship. Encouraging smoking cessation and promoting physical exercise are important and desirable public health objectives, but, as Conway and Niles’s findings suggest, pursuing both of them at the same time may not always be plausible.

Credits

Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 25th July 2016

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 income-health relationship ‘beyond the mean’: new evidence from biomarkers. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 15th July 2016

Going ‘beyond the mean’ is becoming a big deal in health economics, as we get better data and develop new tools for analysis. In economic evaluation we’re finding our feet in the age of personalised medicine. As this new study shows, analogous changes are taking place in the econometrics literature. We all know that income correlates with measures of health, but we know a lot less about the nature of this correlation. If we want to target policy in the most cost-effective way, simply asserting that higher income (on average) improves health is not that useful. This study uses a new econometric technique known as the recentered influence function (RIF) to look at the income-health relationship ‘beyond the mean’. It considers blood-based biomarkers with known disease associations as indicators of health, specifically: cholesterol, HbA1c, Fibrinogen and Ferritin. Even for someone with limited willingness to engage with econometrics (e.g. me) the methods are surprisingly elegant and intuitive. In short, the analysis divides people (in terms of each biomarker) into quantiles. So, for example, we can look at the people with high HbA1c (related to diabetes) and see if the relationship with income is different to that for people with a low HbA1c. The study finds that the income-health relationship is non-linear across the health distribution, thus proving the merit of the RIF approach. Generally, the income gradients were higher at the top quintiles. This suggests that income may be more important in tipping a person over the edge – in terms of clinical cut-offs – than in affecting the health of people who are closer to the average. The analysis for cholesterol showed that looking only at the mean (i.e. income increases cholesterol) might hide a positive relationship for most of the distribution but a negative relationship at the top end. This could translate into very different policy implications. The study carried out further decomposition analyses to look at gender differences, which support further differentiation in policy. This kind of analysis will become increasingly important in policy development and evaluation. We might start to see public interventions being exposed as useless for most people, and perhaps actively harmful for some, even if they look good on average.

Using patient-reported outcomes for economic evaluation: getting the timing right. Value in Health Published 15th July 2016

The estimation of QALYs involves an ‘area under the curve’ approach to outcome measurement. How accurately the estimate represents the ‘true’ number of QALYs (if there is such a thing) depends both on where the dots (i.e. data collection points) are and how we connect them. This study looks at the importance of these methodological decisions. Most of us (I think) would use linear interpolation between time points, but the authors also consider an alternative assumption that the health state utility value applies to the whole of the preceding period. The study looks at data for total knee arthroplasty with SF-12 data at 6 weeks, 3 and 6 months and then annually up to 5 years after the operation. The authors evaluated the use of alternative single postoperative SF-6D scores compared with using all of the data, and both linear and immediate interpolation. This gave 12 alternative scenarios. Collecting only at 3 months and using linear interpolation gave a surprisingly similar profile to the ‘true’ number of QALYs, at only about 5% too high. Collecting only at 6 weeks would underestimate QALY gain by 41%, while 6 months and 12 months would be 18% too high and 8% too low, respectively. It’s easy to see that the more data you can collect, the more accurate will be your results. This study shows how important it can be to collect health state data at the most appropriate time. 3 months seems to be the figure for total knee arthroplasty, but it will likely differ for other interventions.

Should the NHS abolish the purchaser-provider split? BMJ [PubMed] Published 12th July 2016

The NHS in England (notably not Scotland or Wales) operates with what’s known as the ‘internal market’, which separates the NHS’s functions as purchasers of health care and as providers of health care. In this BMJ ‘Head to Head’, Alan Maynard argues that it ought to be abolished, while Michael Dixon (a GP) defends its maintenance. Maynard argues that the internal market has been an expensive experiment, and that the results of the experiment have not been well-recorded. The Care Quality Commission and Monitor – organisations supporting the internal market – cost around £300 million to run in 2014/15. Dixon argues that the purchaser-provider split offered “refreshingly new accountability” to local commissioners with front-line experience rather than to the Department of Health. Though Dixon seems to be defending an idealised version of commissioning, rather than what is actually observed in practice. Neither party’s argument is particularly compelling because neither draws on any strong empirical findings. That’s because convincing evidence doesn’t exist either way.

The impact of women’s health clinic closures on preventive care. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics [RePEcPublished July 2016

More than the UK, the US has a problem with anti-abortion campaigns having political influence to the extent that they affect the availability of health services for women. This study is interested in cancer screenings and routine check-ups, which aren’t politically contentious. The authors obtain data that include clinic locations and survey responses from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System. The analysis relates to Texas and Wisconsin, which are states that implemented major funding cuts to family planning services and women’s health centres between 2007 and 2012. 25% of clinics in Texas closed during this period. As centres close, and women are required to travel further, we’d expect use of services to decline. There might also be knock-on effects in terms of waiting times and prices at the remaining centres. The analyses focus on the effect of distance to the nearest facility on use of preventive services, controlling for demographics and fixed effects relating to location and time. The principal finding is that an increase in distance to a woman’s nearest facility is likely to reduce use of preventive care, namely Pap tests and clinical breast exams. A 100-mile increase in the distance to the nearest centre was associated with a 7.4% percentage point drop in propensity to receive a breast exam in the past year, and 8.7% for Pap tests. Furthermore, the analysis shows that the impact is greater for individuals with lower educational attainment, particularly in the case of mammography. These findings demonstrate the threat to women’s health posed by political posturing.

Photo credit: Antony Theobald (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nurses on strike

Monday saw the first strike by health service staff in England and Wales for 32 years. This dispute surrounds the refusal of the government to implement a 1% pay rise recommended by the NHS pay review body. The reason for not awarding the pay increase given by the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, was that it is “unaffordable”.

There are a number of intersecting interests involved in any industrial action such as this where various stakeholders have a number of positions to consider. For example, the Secretary of State for Health must balance his mandate to protect public health with political considerations such as re-election and positioning within his party. The reasons for rejecting the pay increase, however, are typically given an economic flavour; in particular, Jeremy Hunt warned that an increase in pay this year may lead to the laying off of a large number of nurses next year, leading to a reduction in the quality of care. But, an examination of some of the economic issues surrounding the rejection of pay increases in the healthcare sector may suggest that the driving forces are more likely to be of a political nature.

In England and Wales, the wage paid to nurses is regulated by the state, and is homogeneous across all areas regardless of the local wage rate. Propper and van Reenen (2010) showed that in areas where the regulated nursing wage is lower than the ‘outside’ market wage there are reductions in the quality of nursing staff and hence healthcare quality, which they measured using hospital mortality rates for acute myocardial infarction. Moreover, they found that ‘the effect is “convex” in that the negative effect of regulation on hospital quality is much stronger in the high-cost areas (where regulated wages are much lower than the outside wage) than the positive effect in the low-cost areas (where regulated wages are higher than the outside wage).’ While these findings may be used to argue against a nationally regulated pay structure for health service staff, they certainly suggest that suppressing the nursing wage is likely to have deleterious consequences to patient health outcomes.

Much of the reasoning behind reducing pay is to do with constraining expenditure in the healthcare sector which, across most developed countries, is rising as a proportion of GDP. Nonetheless, there are sound arguments as to why we might expect healthcare to take up an increasing proportion of national expenditure, and furthermore, why this is not a worry. In particular, the Cost Disease argument (which has been previous discussed here and here), suggests that healthcare will take up a bigger and bigger proportion of the GDP pie, but that this pie will grow at least as quick. This is, in part, due to the low marginal rate of substitution between capital and labour and less than average rate of productivity growth in the healthcare sector. If these arguments hold, then governments may be unnecessarily reducing real terms health expenditure. Indeed, in many cases the government targets for NHS spending are wholly unrealistic (Appleby, 2012).

There have certainly been changes to the composition of the labour force in the healthcare sector. The density of nurses has declined from 12.21 per 1,000 people in 1997 to 8.93 per 1,000 people in 2013 while the density of physicians has increased from 2.3 to 2.79 per 1,000 over the same period (World Health Organisation – data here). This may perhaps reflect a replacement of some nursing tasks with capital or the evolving nature of medical care. However, in many areas, recommended nurse to patient ratios are not met; for example, in neonatal care, one recent survey of neonatal units found that 54% of observed shifts were understaffed with respect to recommended nurse to patient ratios (Pillay, 2012). However, given the relative lack of evidence on the cost-effectiveness of nurse to patient ratios, it cannot be said that the reduction in total nursing labour is the result of calculated cost-effectiveness decisions.

Taken together, it would seem that suppressing the nursing wage rate, or reducing the number of nurses, would have negative consequences on patient outcomes. There may certainly be an argument that the losses in quality are worth the costs saved, whether you agree with it or not, but no evidence has been presented to support this point. At a macroeconomic level, the austerity plan presented by many Western governments, the UK’s included, is rejected by a large proportion of economists.* As many economists and commentators have suggested the austerity programme is likely to be used to satisfy political ends rather than economic ones.** The reduction (in real terms) of the nursing wage may support political gains at the expense of healthcare quality and worse patient outcomes.

*For a discussion of these issues and numerous links, see the blogs of Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, Martin Wolf, Jonathan Portes, and Chris Dillow among many others.

**Again, this wide ranging discussion is captured by many commentators, see, for example, here and here, from the above mentioned blogs, and this article.