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 23rd December 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.

The Internet and children’s psychological wellbeing. Journal of Health Economics Published 13th December 2019

Here at the blog, we like the Internet. We couldn’t exist without it. We vie for your attention along with all of the other content factories (or “friends”). But there’s a well-established sense that people – especially children – should moderate their consumption of Internet content. The Internet is pervasive and is now a fundamental part of our day-to-day lives, not simply an information source to which we turn when we need it. Almost all 12-15 year olds in the UK use the Internet. The ubiquity of the Internet makes it difficult to test its effects. But this paper has a good go at it.

This study is based on the idea that broadband speeds are a good proxy for Internet use. In England, a variety of public and private sector initiatives have resulted in a distorted market with quasi-random assigment of broadband speeds. The authors provide a very thorough explanation of children’s wellbeing in relation to the Internet, outlining a range of potential mechanisms.

The analysis combines data from the UK’s pre-eminent household panel survey (Understanding Society) with broadband speed data published by the UK regulator Ofcom. Six wellbeing outcomes are analysed from children’s self-reported responses. The questions ask children how they feel about their lives – measured on a seven-point scale – in relation to school work, appearance, family, friends, school attended, and life as a whole. An unbalanced panel of 6,310 children from 2012-2017 provides 13,938 observations from 3,765 different Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOA), with average broadband speeds for each LSOA for each year. Each of the six wellbeing outcomes is modelled with child-, neighbourhood- and time-specific fixed effects. The models’ covariates include a variety of indicators relating to the child, their parents, their household, and their local area.

A variety of models are tested, and the overall finding is that higher broadband speeds are negatively associated with all of the six wellbeing indicators. Wellbeing in relation to appearance shows the strongest effect; a 1% increase in broadband speed reduces happiness with appearance by around 0.6%. The authors explore a variety of potential mechanisms by running pairs of models between broadband speeds and the mechanism and between the mechanism and the outcomes. A key finding is that the data seem to support the ‘crowding out’ hypothesis. Higher broadband speeds are associated with children spending less time on activities such as sports, clubs, and real world social interactions, and these activities are in turn positively associated with wellbeing. The authors also consider different subgroups, finding that the effects are more detrimental for girls.

Where the paper falls down is that it doesn’t do anything to convince us that broadband speeds represent a good proxy for Internet use. It’s also not clear exactly what the proxy is meant to be for – use (e.g. time spent on the Internet) or access (i.e. having the option to use the Internet) – though the authors seem to be interested in the former. If that’s the case, the logic of the proxy is not obvious. If I want to do X on the Internet then higher speeds will enable me to do it in less time, in which case the proxy would capture the inverse of the desired indicator. The other problem I think we have is in the use of self-reported measures in this context. A key supposed mechanism for the effect is through ‘social comparison theory’, which we might reasonably expect to influence the way children respond to questions as well as – or instead of – their underlying wellbeing.

One-way sensitivity analysis for probabilistic cost-effectiveness analysis: conditional expected incremental net benefit. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 16th December 2019

Here we have one of those very citable papers that clearly specifies a part of cost-effectiveness analysis methodology. A better title for this paper could be Make one-way sensitivity analysis great again. The authors start out by – quite rightly – bashing the tornado diagram, mostly on the basis that it does not intuitively characterise the information that a decision-maker needs. Instead, the authors propose an approach to probabilistic one-way sensitivity analysis (POSA) that is a kind of simplified version of EVPPI (expected value of partially perfect information) analysis. Crucially, this approach does not assume that the various parameters of the analysis are independent.

The key quantity created by this analysis is the conditional expected incremental net monetary benefit (cINMB), conditional, that is, on the value of the parameter of interest. There are three steps to creating a plot of the POSA results: 1) rank the costs and outcomes for the sampled values of the parameter – say from the first to the last centile; 2) plug in a cost-effectiveness threshold value to calculate the cINMB at each sampled value; and 3) record the probability of observing each value of the parameter. You could use this information to present a tornado-style diagram, plotting the credible range of the cINMB. But it’s more useful to plot a line graph showing the cINMB at the different values of the parameter of interest, taking into account the probability that the values will actually be observed.

The authors illustrate their method using three different parameters from a previously published cost-effectiveness analysis, in each case simulating 15,000 Monte Carlo ‘inner loops’ for each of the 99 centiles. It took me a little while to get my head around the results that are presented, so there’s still some work to do around explaining the visuals to decision-makers. Nevertheless, this approach has the potential to become standard practice.

A head-on ordinal comparison of the composite time trade-off and the better-than-dead method. Value in Health Published 19th December 2019

For years now, methodologists have been trying to find a reliable way to value health states ‘worse than dead’. The EQ-VT protocol, used to value the EQ-5D-5L, includes the composite time trade-off (cTTO). The cTTO task gives people the opportunity to trade away life years in good health to avoid having to subsequently live in a state that they have identified as being ‘worse than dead’ (i.e. they would prefer to die immediately than to live in it). An alternative approach to this is the better-than-dead method, whereby people simply compare given durations in a health state to being dead. But are these two approaches measuring the same thing? This study sought to find out.

The authors recruited a convenience sample of 200 students and asked them to value seven different EQ-5D-5L health states that were close to zero in the Dutch tariff. Each respondent completed both a cTTO task and a better-than-dead task (the order varied) for each of the seven states. The analysis then looked at the extent to which there was agreement between the two methods in terms of whether states were identified as being better or worse than dead. Agreement was measured using counts and using polychoric correlations. Unsurprisingly, agreement was higher for those states that lay further from zero in the Dutch tariff. Around zero, there was quite a bit of disagreement – only 65% agreed for state 44343. Both approaches performed similarly with respect to consistency and test-retest reliability. Overall, the authors interpret these findings as meaning that the two methods are measuring the same underlying preferences.

I don’t find that very convincing. States were more often identified as worse than dead in the better-than-dead task, with 55% valued as such, compared with 37% in the cTTO. That seems like a big difference. The authors provide a variety of possible explanations for the differences, mostly relating to the way the tasks are framed. Or it might be that the complexity of the worse-than-dead task in the cTTO is so confusing and counterintuitive that respondents (intentionally or otherwise) avoid having to do it. For me, the findings reinforce the futility of trying to value health states in relation to being dead. If a slight change in methodology prevents a group of biomedical students from giving consistent assessments of whether or not a state is worse than being dead, what hope do we have?

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Shilpi Swami’s journal round-up for 9th December 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.

Performance of UK National Health Service compared with other high-income countries: observational study. BMJ [PubMed] Published 27th November 2019

Efficiencies and inefficiencies of the NHS in the UK have been debated in recent years. This new study reveals the performance of the NHS compared to other high-income countries, based on observational data, and has already caught a bunch of attention (almost 3,000 tweets and 6 news appearances, since publication)!

The authors presented a descriptive analysis of the UK (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) compared to nine other countries (US, Canada, Germany, Australia, Sweden, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland) based on aggregated recent data from a range of sources (such as OECD, World Bank, the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation, and Eurostat). Good things first; access to care – a lower proportion of people felt unmet needs owing to costs. The waiting times were comparable across other countries, except for specialist care. The UK performed slightly better on the metric of patient safety. The main challenge, however, is that NHS healthcare spending is lower and has been growing more slowly. This means fewer doctors and nurses, and doctors spending less time with patients. The authors vividly suggest that

“Policy makers should consider how recent changes to nursing bursaries, the weakened pound, and uncertainty about the status of immigrant workers in the light of the Brexit referendum result have influenced these numbers and how to respond to these challenges in the future.”

Understandably comparing healthcare systems across the world is difficult. Including the US in the study, and not including other countries like Spain and Japan, may need more justification or could be a scope of future research.

To be fair, the article is a not-to-miss read. It is an eye-opener for those who think it’s only a (too much) demand-side problem the the NHS is facing and confirms the perspective of those who think it’s a (not enough) supply-side problem. Kudos to the hardworking doctors and nurses who are currently delivering efficiently in the stretched situation! For sustainability, the NHS needs to consider increasing its spending to increase labour supply and long-term care.

A systematic review of methods to predict weight trajectories in health economic models of behavioral weight management programs: the potential role of psychosocial factors. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 2nd December 2019

In economic modelling, assumptions are often made about the long-term impact of interventions, and it’s important that these assumptions are based on sound evidence and/or tested in sensitivity analysis, as these could affect the cost-effectiveness results.

The authors explored assumptions about weight trajectories to inform economic modelling of behavioural weight management programmes. Also, they checked their evidence sources, and whether these assumptions were based on any psychosocial variables (such as self-regulation, motivation, self-efficacy, and habit), as these are known to be associated with weight-loss trajectories.

The authors conducted a systematic literature review of economic models of weight management interventions that aimed at reducing weight. In the 38 studies included, they found 6 types of assumptions of weight trajectories beyond trial duration (weight loss maintained, weight loss regained immediately, linear weight regain, subgroup-specific trajectories, exponential decay of effect, maintenance followed by regain), with only 15 of the studies reporting sources for these assumptions. The authors also elaborated on the assumptions and graphically represented them. Psychosocial variables were, in fact, measured in evidence sources of some of the included studies. However, the authors found that none of the studies estimated their weight trajectory assumptions based on these! Though the article also reports on how the assumptions were tested in sensitivity analyses and their impact on results in the studies (if reported within these studies), it would have been interesting to see more insights into this. The authors feel that there’s a need to investigate how psychosocial variables measured in trials can be used within health economic models to calculate weight trajectories and, thus, to improve the validity of cost-effectiveness estimates.

To me, given that only around half of included studies reported sources of assumptions on long-term effects of the interventions and performed sensitivity analysis on these assumptions, it raises the bigger long-debated question on the quality of economic evaluations! To conclude, the review is comprehensive and insightful. It is an interesting read and will be especially useful for those interested in modelling long-term impacts of behavioural support programs.

The societal monetary value of a QALY associated with EQ‐5D‐3L health gains. The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 28th November 2019

Finding an estimate of the societal monetary value of a QALY (MVQALY) is mostly performed to inform a range of thresholds for accurately guiding cost-effectiveness decisions.

This study explores the degree of variation in the societal MVQALY based on a large sample of the population in Spain. It uses a discrete choice experiment and a time trade-off exercise to derive a value set for utilities, followed by a willingness to pay questionnaire. The study reveals that the societal values for a QALY, corresponding to different EQ-5D-3L health gains, vary approximately between €10,000 and €30,000. Ironically, the MVQALY associated with larger improvements on QoL was found to be lower than with moderate QoL gains, meaning that WTP is less than proportional to the size of the QoL improvement. The authors further explored whether budgetary restrictions could be a reason for this by analysing responses of individuals with higher income and found out that it may somewhat explain this, but not fully. As this, at face value, implies there should be a lower cost per QALY threshold for interventions with largest improvement of health than with moderate improvements, it raises a lot of questions and forces you to interpret the findings with caution. The authors suggest that the diminishing MVQALY is, at least partly, produced by the lack of sensitivity of WTP responses.

Though I think that the article does not provide a clear take-home message, it makes the readers re-think the very underlying norms of estimating monetary values of QALYs. The study eventually raises more questions than providing answers but could be useful to further explore areas of utility research.

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