Thesis Thursday: Frank Sandmann

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Frank Sandmann who has a PhD from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
The true cost of epidemic and outbreak diseases in hospitals
Supervisors
Mark Jit, Sarah Deeny, Julie Robotham, John Edmunds
Repository link
http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/4648208/

Do you refer to the ‘true’ cost because some costs are hidden in this context?

That’s a good observation. Economists use the term “true cost” as a synonym for “opportunity cost”, which can be defined as the net value of the forgone second-best use of a resource. The true value of a hospital bed is therefore determined by its second-best use, which may indeed be less easily observed and less obvious, or somewhat hidden.

In the context of infectious disease outbreaks in hospital, the most visible costs are the direct expenditures on treatments of infected cases and any measures of containment. However, they do not capture the full extent of the “alternative” costs and therefore cannot equal opportunity costs. Slightly less visible are the potential knock-on effects for visitors to the hospital who, unbeknown to them, may get infected and contribute to sustained transmission in the community. Least seen are the externalities borne by patients who have not been admitted so far but who are awaiting admission, and for whom there is no space in hospital yet due to the ongoing outbreak.

In my thesis, I provided a general overview of the historical development of the concept of opportunity costs of resources before I looked in detail at bed-days and the application for hospitals.

How should the opportunity cost of hospital stays be determined?

That depends on for whom you want to determine these costs.

For individual patients, it depends on the very subjective decision of how else they would spend their time instead, and how urgent it is to receive hospital care.

From the perspective of hospital administrators, it is straightforward to calculate the opportunity costs based on the revenues and expenditures of the inpatients, their length of stays, and the existing demand of care from the community. This is quite important because whether there are opportunity costs from forgone admissions will depend on whether there are other patients actually waiting to be admitted, which is somewhat reflected in occupancy rates and of course waiting lists.

Any other decision maker who is acting as an agent on behalf of a collective group or the public should look into the forgone health impact of patients who cannot be admitted when the beds are unavailable to them. In my thesis, I proposed a method for quantifying the opportunity costs of bed-days with the net benefit of the second-best patients forgone, which I illustrated with the example of norovirus-associated gastroenteritis.

How important are differences in methods for costing in the context of gastroenteritis and norovirus?

The results can differ quite substantially when using different costing methods. Norovirus is an ideal illness to illustrate this issue given that otherwise healthy people with gastrointestinal symptoms and no further comorbidities or complications shouldn’t be admitted to hospital in order to minimise the risk of an outbreak. Patients with norovirus are therefore often not the patient group that is benefitting the most from a hospital stay.

In one of the studies of my PhD, I was able to show that the annual burden of norovirus in public hospitals in England amounts to a mean £110 million using conventional costing methods, while the opportunity costs were two-to-three times higher of up to £300 million.

This means that there is the potential for a situation where an intervention is disadvantaged when using conventional methods for costing and ignoring the opportunity costs. When evaluating such an intervention against established decision rules of cost-effectiveness, this may lead to an incorrect decision.

What were some of the key challenges that you encountered in estimating the cost of norovirus to hospitals, and how did you overcome them?

There were at least four key challenges:

First was the number of admissions. Many inpatients with norovirus won’t get recorded as such if they haven’t been laboratory-confirmed. That is why I regressed national inpatient episodes of gastroenteritis against laboratory surveillance reports for ten different gastrointestinal pathogens to estimate the norovirus-attributable proportion.

Second was the number of bed-days used by inpatients that were infected with norovirus during their hospital stay. Using their total length of stay, or some form of propensity matching, suffers from time-dependent biases and overestimates the number of bed-days. Instead, I used a multi-state model and patient-level data from a local hospital.

Third was the bed-days that were left unoccupied for infection control. One of the datasets tracked them mandatorily for acute hospitals during winters, while another surveillance system was voluntary, but recorded outbreaks throughout the year. For a more accurate estimate, I compared both datasets with each other to explore their potential overlap.

Fourth was the forgone health of alternative admissions who had otherwise occupied the beds. I had to make assumptions about the disease progression with and without hospital treatment, for which I used health-state utilities that accounted for age, sex, and the primary medical condition.

If you could have wished for one additional set of data that wasn’t available, what would it have been?

I have been very fortunate to work with a number of colleagues at Public Health England and University College London who provided me with much of the epidemiological data that I needed. My research could have benefitted though from a dataset that tracked the time of infection for a larger patient population and for longer observation periods, and a dataset that included more robust estimates for the health gain from hospital care.

If I could make a wish about the existing datasets on norovirus that I have used, I would wish for a higher rate of reporting given that it became clear from our comparison of datasets that there is a highly-correlated trend, but the number of outbreaks reported and the details of reporting leave room for improvement. Another wish of mine for daily reporting of bed-days during winter became reality only recently; during my PhD, I had to impute missing values that were non-randomly missing at weekends and over the Christmas period. This was changed in winter 2016, and I have recently shown that the mean of our lowest-to-highest imputation scenarios is surprisingly close to the daily number of bed-days recorded since then.

Parts of your thesis are made up of journal articles that you published before submission. Was this always your intention and how did you find the experience?

I always wanted to publish parts of my thesis in separate journal articles as I believe this to be a great chance to reach different audiences. That is because my theoretical research on opportunity costs may be of broader interest than just to those who work on norovirus or bed-days given that my findings are generalisable to other diseases as well as other resources. At the same time, others may be more interested in my results for norovirus, and still others in my application of the various statistical, economic, and mathematical modelling techniques.

After all, I honestly suspect that some people may place a higher value on their next-best alternative use of time than reading my thesis from cover to cover.

Writing up my thoughts early on also helped me refine them, and the peer-review process was a great opportunity to get some additional feedback. It did require good time management skills though to keep coming back to previous studies to address the peer-reviewers’ comments while I was already busy working on the next studies.

All in all, I can recommend others to consider it and, looking back, I’d do it again this way.

Thesis Thursday: Thomas Hoe

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Thomas Hoe who has a PhD from University College London. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Essays on the economics of health care provision
Supervisors
Richard Blundell, Orazio Attanasio
Repository link
http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/10048627/

What data do you use in your analyses and what are your main analytical methods?

I use data from the English National Health Service (NHS). One of the great features of the NHS is the centralized data it collects, with the Hospital Episodes Statistics (HES) containing information on every public hospital visit in England.

In my thesis, I primarily use two empirical approaches. In my work on trauma and orthopaedic departments, I exploit the fact that the number of emergency trauma admissions to hospital each day is random. This randomness allows me to conduct a quasi-experiment to assess how hospitals perform when they are more or less busy.

The second approach I use, in my work on emergency departments with Jonathan Gruber and George Stoye, is based on bunching techniques that originated in the tax literature (Chetty et al, 2013; Kleven and Waseem, 2013; Saez, 2010). These techniques use interpolation to infer how discontinuities in incentive schemes affect outcomes. We apply and extend these techniques to evaluate the impact of the ‘4-hour target’ in English emergency departments.

How did you characterise and measure quality in your research?

Measuring the quality of health care outcomes is always a challenge in empirical research. Since my research primarily relies on administrative data from HES, I use the patient outcomes that can be directly constructed from this data: in-hospital mortality, and unplanned readmission.

Mortality is, of course, an outcome that is widely used, and offers an unambiguous interpretation. Readmission, on the other hand, is an outcome that has gained more acceptance as a measure of quality in recent years, particularly following the implementation of readmission penalties in the UK and the US.

What is ‘crowding’, and how can it affect the quality of care?

I use the term crowding to refer, in a fairly general sense, to how busy a hospital is. This could mean that the hospital is physically very crowded, with lots of patients in close proximity to one another, or that the number of patients outstrips the available resources.

In practice, I evaluate how crowding affects quality of care by comparing hospital performance and patient outcomes on days when hospitals deal with different levels of admissions (due to random spikes in the number of trauma admissions). I find that hospitals respond by not only cancelling some planned admissions, such as elective hip and knee replacements, but also discharge existing patients sooner. For these discharged patients, the shorter-than-otherwise stay in the hospital is associated with poorer health outcomes for patients, most notably an increase in subsequent hospital visits (unplanned readmissions).

How might incentives faced by hospitals lead to negative consequences?

One of the strongest incentives faced by public hospitals in England is to meet the government-set waiting time target for elective care. This target has been very successful at reducing wait times. In doing so, however, it may have contributed to hospitals shortening patient stays and increasing patient admissions.

My research shows that shorter hospitals stays, in turn, can lead to increases in unplanned readmissions. Setting strong wait time targets, then, is in effect trading off shorter waits (from which patients benefit) with crowding effects (which may harm patients).

Your research highlights the importance of time in the hospital production process. How does this play out?

I look at this from three dimensions, each a separate part of a patient’s journey through hospital.

The first two relate to waiting for treatment. For elective patients, this means waiting for an appointment, and previous work has shown that patients attach significant value to reductions in these wait times. I show that trauma and orthopaedic patients would be better off with further wait time reductions, even if that leads to more crowding.

Emergency patients, in contrast, wait for treatment while physically in a hospital emergency department. I show that these waiting times can be very harmful and that by shortening these wait times we can actually save lives.

The third dimension relates to how long a patient spends in hospital recovering from surgery. I show that, at least on the margin of care for trauma and orthopaedic patients, an additional day in hospital has tangible benefits in terms of reducing the likelihood of experiencing an unplanned readmission.

How could your findings be practically employed in the NHS to improve productivity?

I would highlight two areas of my research that speak directly to the policy debate about NHS productivity.

First, while the wait time targets for elective care may have led to some crowding problems and subsequently more readmissions, the net benefit of these targets to trauma and orthopaedic patients is positive. Second, the wait time target for emergency departments also appears to have benefited patients: it saved lives at a reasonably cost-effective rate.

From the perspective of patients, therefore, I would argue these policies have been relatively successful and should be maintained.

Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 25th 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.

The efficiency of slacking off: evidence from the emergency department. Econometrica [RePEc] Published May 2018

Scheduling workers is a complex task, especially in large organisations such as hospitals. Not only should one consider when different shifts start throughout the day, but also how work is divided up over the course of each shift. Physicians, like anyone else, value their leisure time and want to go home at the end of a shift. Given how they value this leisure time, as the end of a shift approaches physicians may behave differently. This paper explores how doctors in an emergency department behave at ‘end of shift’, in particular looking at whether doctors ‘slack off’ by accepting fewer patients or tasks and also whether they rush to finish those tasks they have. Both cases can introduce inefficiency by either under-using their labour time or using resources too intensively to complete something. Immediately, from the plots of the raw data, it is possible to see a drop in patients ‘accepted’ both close to end of shift and close to the next shift beginning (if there is shift overlap). Most interestingly, after controlling for patient characteristics, time of day, and day of week, there is a decrease in the length of stay of patients accepted closer to the end of shift, which is ‘dose-dependent’ on time to end of shift. There are also marked increases in patient costs, orders, and inpatient admissions in the final hour of the shift. Assuming that only the number of patients assigned and not the type of patient changes over the course of a shift (a somewhat strong assumption despite the additional tests), then this would suggest that doctors are rushing care and potentially providing sub-optimal or inefficient care closer to the end of their shift. The paper goes on to explore optimal scheduling on the basis of the results, among other things, but ultimately shows an interesting, if not unexpected, pattern of physician behaviour. The results relate mainly to efficiency, but it’d be interesting to see how they relate to quality in the form of preventable errors.

Semiparametric estimation of longitudinal medical cost trajectory. Journal of the American Statistical Association Published 19th June 2018

Modern computational and statistical methods have opened up a range of statistical models to estimation hitherto inestimable. This includes complex latent variable structures, non-linear models, and non- and semi-parametric models. Recently we covered the use of splines for semi-parametric modelling in our Method of the Month series. Not that complexity is everything of course, but given this rich toolbox to more faithfully replicate the data generating process, one does wonder why the humble linear model estimated with OLS remains so common. Nevertheless, I digress. This paper addresses the problem of estimating the medical cost trajectory for a given disease from diagnosis to death. There are two key issues: (i) the trajectory is likely to be non-linear with costs probably increasing near death and possibly also be higher immediately after diagnosis (a U-shape), and (ii) we don’t observe the costs of those who die, i.e. there is right-censoring. Such a set-up is also applicable in other cases, for example looking at health outcomes in panel data with informative dropout. The authors model medical costs for each month post-diagnosis and time of censoring (death) by factorising their joint distribution into a marginal model for censoring and a conditional model for medical costs given the censoring time. The likelihood then has contributions from the observed medical costs and their times, and the times of the censored outcomes. We then just need to specify the individual models. For medical costs, they use a multivariate normal with mean function consisting of a bivariate spline of time and time of censoring. The time of censoring is modelled non-parametrically. This setup of the missing data problem is sometimes referred to as a pattern mixing model, in that the outcome is modelled as a mixture density over different populations dying at different times. The authors note another possibility for informative missing data, which was considered not to be estimable for complex non-linear structures, was the shared parameter model (to soon appear in another Method of the Month) that assumes outcomes and dropout are independent conditional on an underlying latent variable. This approach can be more flexible, especially in cases with varying treatment effects. One wonders if the mixed model representation of penalised splines wouldn’t fit nicely in a shared parameter framework and provide at least as good inferences. An idea for a future paper perhaps… Nevertheless, the authors illustrate their method by replicating the well-documented U-shaped costs from the time of diagnosis in patients with stage IV breast cancer.

Do environmental factors drive obesity? Evidence from international graduate students. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 21st June 2018

‘The environment’ can encompass any number of things including social interactions and networks, politics, green space, and pollution. Sometimes referred to as ‘neighbourhood effects’, the impact of the shared environment above and beyond the effect of individual risk factors is of great interest to researchers and policymakers alike. But there are a number of substantive issues that hinder estimation of neighbourhood effects. For example, social stratification into neighbourhoods likely means people living together are similar so it is difficult to compare like with like across neighbourhoods; trying to model neighbourhood choice will also, therefore, remove most of the variation in the data. Similarly, this lack of common support, i.e. overlap, between people from different neighbourhoods means estimated effects are not generalisable across the population. One way of getting around these problems is simply to randomise people to neighbourhoods. As odd as that sounds, that is what occurred in the Moving to Opportunity experiments and others. This paper takes a similar approach in trying to look at neighbourhood effects on the risk of obesity by looking at the effects of international students moving to different locales with different local obesity rates. The key identifying assumption is that the choice to move to different places is conditionally independent of the local obesity rate. This doesn’t seem a strong assumption – I’ve never heard a prospective student ask about the weight of our student body. Some analysis supports this claim. The raw data and some further modelling show a pretty strong and robust relationship between local obesity rates and weight gain of the international students. Given the complexity of the causes and correlates of obesity (see the crazy diagram in this post) it is hard to discern why certain environments contribute to obesity. The paper presents some weak evidence of differences in unhealthy behaviours between high and low obesity places – but this doesn’t quite get at the environmental link, such as whether these behaviours are shared through social networks or perhaps the structure and layout of the urban area, for example. Nevertheless, here is some strong evidence that living in an area where there are obese people means you’re more likely to become obese yourself.

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