Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 20th May 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.

A new method to determine the optimal willingness to pay in cost-effectiveness analysis. Value in Health Published 17th May 2019

Efforts to identify a robust estimate of the willingness to pay for a QALY have floundered. Mostly, these efforts have relied on asking people about their willingness to pay. In the UK, we have moved away from using such estimates as a basis for setting cost-effectiveness thresholds in the context of resource allocation decisions. Instead, we have attempted to identify the opportunity cost of a QALY, which is perhaps even more difficult, but more easy to justify in the context of a fixed budget. This paper seeks to inject new life into the willingness-to-pay approach by developing a method based on relative risk aversion.

The author outlines the relationship between relative risk aversion and the rate at which willingness-to-pay changes with income. Various candidate utility functions are described with respect to risk preferences, with a Weibull function being adopted for this framework. Estimates of relative risk aversion have been derived from numerous data sources, including labour supply, lottery experiments, and happiness surveys. These estimates from the literature are used to demonstrate the relationship between relative risk aversion and the ‘optimal’ willingness to pay (K), calibrated using the Weibull utility function. For an individual with ‘representative’ parameters plugged into their utility function, K is around twice the income level. K always increases with relative risk aversion.

Various normative questions are raised, including whether a uniform K should be adopted for everybody within the population, and whether individuals should be able to spend on health care on top of public provision. This approach certainly appears to be more straightforward than other approaches to estimating willingness-to-pay in health care, and may be well-suited to decentralised (US-style) resource allocation decision-making. It’s difficult to see how this framework could gain traction in the UK, but it’s good to see alternative approaches being proposed and I hope to see this work developed further.

Striving for a societal perspective: a framework for economic evaluations when costs and effects fall on multiple sectors and decision makers. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 16th May 2019

I’ve always been sceptical of a ‘societal perspective’ in economic evaluation, and I have written in favour of a limited health care perspective. This is mostly for practical reasons. Being sufficiently exhaustive to identify a truly ‘societal’ perspective is so difficult that, in attempting to do so, there is a very high chance that you will produce estimates that are so inaccurate and imprecise that they are more dangerous than useful. But the fact is that there is no single decision-maker when it comes to public expenditure. Governments are made up of various departments, within which there are many levels and divisions. Not everybody will care about the health care perspective, so other objectives ought to be taken into account.

The purpose of this paper is to build on the idea of the ‘impact inventory’, described by the Second Panel on Cost-Effectiveness in Health and Medicine, which sought to address the challenge of multiple objectives. The extended framework described in this paper captures effects and opportunity costs associated with an intervention within various dimensions. These dimensions could (or should) align with decision-makers’ objectives. Trade-offs invariably require aggregation, and this aggregation could take place either within individuals or within dimensions – something not addressed by the Second Panel. The authors describe the implications of each approach to aggregation, providing visual representations of the impact inventory in each case. Aggregating within individuals requires a normative judgement about how each dimension is valued to the individual and then a judgement about how to aggregate for overall population net benefit. Aggregating across individuals within dimensions requires similar normative judgements. Where the chosen aggregation functions are linear and additive, both approaches will give the same results. But as soon as we start to consider equity concerns or more complex aggregation, we’ll see different decisions being indicated.

The authors adopt an example used by the Second Panel to demonstrate the decisions that would be made within a health-only perspective and then decisions that consider other dimensions. There could be a simple extension beyond health, such as including the impact on individuals’ consumption of other goods. Or it could be more complex, incorporating multiple dimensions, sectors, and decision-makers. For the more complex situation, the authors consider the inclusion of the criminal justice sector, introducing the number of crimes averted as an object of value.

It’s useful to think about the limitations of the Second Panel’s framing of the impact inventory and to make explicit the normative judgements involved. What this paper seems to be saying is that cross-sector decision-making is too complex to be adequately addressed by the Second Panel’s impact inventory. The framework described in this paper may be too abstract to be practically useful, and too vague to be foundational. But the complexities and challenges in multi-sector economic evaluation need to be spelt out – there is no simple solution.

Advanced data visualisation in health economics and outcomes research: opportunities and challenges. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 4th May 2019

Computers can make your research findings look cool, which can help make people pay attention. But data visualisation can also be used as part of the research process and provide a means of more intuitively (and accurately) communicating research findings. The data sets used by health economists are getting bigger, which provides more opportunity and need for effective visualisation. The authors of this paper suggest that data visualisation techniques could be more widely adopted in our field, but that there are challenges and potential pitfalls to consider.

Decision modelling is an obvious context in which to use data visualisation, because models tend to involve large numbers of simulations. Dynamic visualisations can provide a means by which to better understand what is going on in these simulations, particularly with respect to uncertainty in estimates associated with alternative model structures or parameters. If paired with interactive models and customised dashboards, visualisation can make complex models accessible to non-expert users. Communicating patient outcomes data is also highlighted as a potential application, aiding the characterisation of differences between groups of individuals and alternative outcome measures.

Yet, there are barriers to wider use of visualisation. There is some scepticism about bias in underlying analyses, and end users don’t want to be bamboozled by snazzy graphics. The fact that journal articles are still the primary mode of communicating research findings is a problem, as you can’t have dynamic visualisations in a PDF. There’s also a learning curve for analysts wishing to develop complex visualisations. Hopefully, opportunities will be identified for two-way learning between the health economics world and data scientists more accustomed to data visualisation.

The authors provide several examples (static in the publication, but with links to live tools), to demonstrate the types of visualisations that can be created. Generally speaking, complex visualisations are proposed as complements to our traditional presentations of results, such as cost-effectiveness acceptability curves, rather than as alternatives. The key thing is to maintain credibility by ensuring that data visualisation is used to describe data in a more accurate and meaningful way, and to avoid exaggeration of research findings. It probably won’t be long until we see a set of good practice guidelines being developed for our field.

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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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Meeting round-up: Health Economists’ Study Group (HESG) Winter 2019

2019 started with aplomb with the HESG Winter meeting, superbly organised by the Centre for Health Economics, University of York.

Andrew Jones kicked off proceedings with his brilliant course on data visualisation in health econometrics. The eager audience learnt about Edward Tufte’s and others’ ideas about how to create charts that help to make it much easier to understand information. The course was tremendously well received by the HESG audience. And I know that I’ll find it incredibly useful too, as there were lots of ideas that apply to my work. So I’m definitely going to be looking further into Andrew’s chapter on data visualisation to know more.

The conference proper started in the afternoon. I had the pleasure to chair the fascinating paper by Manuela Deidda et al on an economic evaluation using observational data on the Healthy Start Voucher, which was discussed by Anne Ludbrook. We had an engaging discussion, that not only delved into the technical aspects of the paper, such as the intricacies of implementing propensity score matching and regression discontinuity, but also about the policy implications of the results.

I continued with the observational data theme by enjoying the discussion led by Panos Kasteridis on the Andrew McCarthy et al paper. Then I quickly followed this by popping over to catch Attakrit Leckcivilize’s excellent discussion of Padraig Dixon’s et al paper on the effect of obesity on hospital costs. This impressive paper uses Mendelian randomisation, which is a fascinating approach using a type of instrumental variable analysis with individuals’ genetic variants as the instrument.

The meeting continued in the stunning setting of the Yorkshire Museum for the plenary session, which also proved a fitting location to pay tribute to the inspirational Alan Maynard, who sadly passed away in 2018. Unfortunately, I was unable to hear the tributes to Alan Maynard in person, but fellow attendees were able to paint a moving portrait of the event on Twitter, that kept me in touch.

The plenary was chaired by Karen Bloor and included presentations by Kalipso Chalkidou, Brian Ferguson, Becky Henderson and Danny PalnochJane Hall, Steve Birch and Maria Goddard gave personal tributes.

The health economics community was united in gratitude to Professor Alan Maynard, who did so much to advance and disseminate the discipline. It made for a wonderful way to finish day 1!

Day 2 started bright and was full of stimulating sessions to choose from.

I chose to zone in on the cost-effectiveness topic in particular. I started with the David Glynn et al paper about using “back of the envelope” calculations to inform funding and research decisions, discussed by Ed Wilson. This paper is an excellent step towards making value of information easy to use.

I then attended Matthew Quaife’s discussion of Matthew Taylor’s paper on the consequences of assuming independence of parameters to decision uncertainty. This is a relevant paper for the cost-effectiveness world, in particular for those tasked with building and appraising cost-effectiveness models.

Next up it was my turn in the hot seat, as I presented the Jose Robles-Zurita et al paper on the economic evaluation of diagnostic tests. This thought-provoking paper presents a method to account for the effect of accuracy on the uptake of the test, in the context of maximising health.

As always, we were spoilt for choice in the afternoon. The paper “Drop dead: is anchoring at ‘dead’ a theoretical requirement in health state valuation” by Chris Sampson et al, competed very strongly with “Is it really ‘Grim up North’? The causes and consequences of inequalities on health and wider outcomes” by Anna Wilding et al, for the most provocative title. “Predicting the unpredictable? Using discrete choice experiments in economic evaluation to characterise uncertainty and account for heterogeneity”, from Matthew Quaife et al, also gave them a run for their money! I’ll leave a sample here of the exciting papers in discussion, so you can make your own mind up:

Dinner was in the splendid Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Built in 1357, it is one of the finest Medieval buildings in the UK. Another stunning setting that provided a beautiful backdrop for a wonderful evening!

Andrew Jones presented the ‘Health Economics’ PhD Poster Prize, sponsored by Health Economics Wiley. Rose Atkins took the top honours by winning the Wiley prize for best poster. With Ashleigh Kernohan’s poster being highly commended, given its brilliant use of technology. Congratulations both!

Unfortunately, the vagaries of public transport meant I had to go home straight after dinner, but I heard from many trustworthy sources, on the following day, that the party continued well into the early hours. Clearly, health economics is a most energising topic!

For me, day 3 was all about cost-effectiveness decision rules. I started with the paper by Mark Sculpher et al, discussed by Chris Sampson. This remarkable paper sums up the evidence on the marginal productivity of the NHS, discussing how to use it to inform decisions, and proposes an agenda for research. There were many questions and comments from the floor, showing how important and challenging this topic is. As are so many papers in HESG, this is clearly one to look out for when it appears in print!

The next paper was on a very different way to solve the problem of resource allocation in health care. Philip Clarke and Paul Frijters propose an interesting system of auctions to set prices. The paper was well discussed by James Lomas, which kick-started an animated discussion with the audience about practicalities and implications for investment decisions by drug companies. Great food for thought!

Last, but definitely not least, I took in the paper by Bernarda Zamora et al on the relationship between health outcomes and expenditure across geographical areas in England. David Glynn did a great job discussing the paper, and especially in explaining data envelopment analysis. As ever, the audience was highly engaged and put forward many questions and comments. Clearly, the productivity of the NHS is a central question for health economics and will keep us busy for some time to come.

As always, this was a fantastic HESG meeting that was superbly organised, providing an environment where authors, discussants and participants alike were able to excel.

I really felt a feeling of collegiality, warmth and energy permeate the event. We are part of such an amazing scientific community. Next stop, HESG Summer meeting, hosted by the University of East Anglia. I’m already looking forward to it!

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