Alastair Canaway’s journal round-up for 29th January 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.

Is “end of life” a special case? Connecting Q with survey methods to measure societal support for views on the value of life-extending treatments. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 19th January 2018

Should end-of-life care be treated differently? A question often asked and previously discussed on this blog: findings to date are equivocal. This question is important given NICE’s End-of-Life Guidance for increased QALY thresholds for life-extending interventions, and additionally the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF). This week’s round-up sees Helen Mason and colleagues attempt to inform the debate around societal support for views of end-of-life care, by trying to determine the degree of support for different views on the value of life-extending treatment. It’s always a treat to see papers grounded in qualitative research in the big health economics journals and this month saw the use of a particularly novel mixed methods approach adding a quantitative element to their previous qualitative findings. They combined the novel (but increasingly recognisable thanks to the Glasgow team) Q methodology with survey techniques to examine the relative strength of views on end-of-life care that they had formulated in a previous Q methodology study. Their previous research had found that there are three prevalent viewpoints on the value of life-extending treatment: 1. ‘a population perspective: value for money, no special cases’, 2. ‘life is precious: valuing life-extension and patient choice’, 3. ‘valuing wider benefits and opportunity cost: the quality of life and death’. This paper used a large Q-based survey design (n=4902) to identify societal support for the three different viewpoints. Viewpoints 1 and 2 were found to be dominant, whilst there was little support for viewpoint 3. The two supported viewpoints are not complimentary: they represent the ethical divide between the utilitarian with a fixed budget (view 1), and the perspective based on entitlement to healthcare (view 2: which implies an expanding healthcare budget in practice). I suspect most health economists will fall into camp number one. In terms of informing decision making, this is very helpful, yet unhelpful: there is no clear answer. It is, however, useful for decision makers in providing evidence to balance the oft-repeated ‘end of life is special’ argument based solely on conjecture, and not evidence (disclosure: I have almost certainly made this argument before). Neither of the dominant viewpoints supports NICE’s End of Life Guidance nor the CDF. Viewpoint 1 suggests end of life interventions should be treated the same as others, whilst viewpoint 2 suggests that treatments should be provided if the patient chooses them; it does not make end of life a special case as this viewpoint believes all treatments should be available if people wish to have them (and we should expand budgets accordingly). Should end of life care be treated differently? Well, it depends on who you ask.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of childhood health utilities. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 7th October 2017

If you’re working on an economic evaluation of an intervention targeting children then you are going to be thankful for this paper. The purpose of the paper was to create a compendium of utility values for childhood conditions. A systematic review was conducted which identified a whopping 26,634 papers after deduplication – sincere sympathy to those who had to do the abstract screening. Following abstract screening, data were extracted for the remaining 272 papers. In total, 3,414 utility values were included when all subgroups were considered – this covered all ICD-10 chapters relevant to child health. When considering only the ‘main study’ samples, 1,191 utility values were recorded and these are helpfully separated by health condition, and methodological characteristics. In short, the authors have successfully built a vast catalogue of child utility values (and distributions) for use in future economic evaluations. They didn’t, however, stop there, they then built on the systematic review results by conducting a meta-analysis to i) estimate health utility decrements for each condition category compared to general population health, and ii) to examine how methodological factors impact child utility values. Interestingly for those conducting research in children, they found that parental proxy values were associated with an overestimation of values. There is a lot to unpack in this paper and a lot of appendices and supplementary materials are included (including the excel database for all 3,414 subsamples of health utilities). I’m sure this will be a valuable resource in future for health economic researchers working in the childhood context. As far as MSc dissertation projects go, this is a very impressive contribution.

Estimating a cost-effectiveness threshold for the Spanish NHS. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 28th December 2017

In the UK, the cost-per-QALY threshold is long-established, although whether it is the ‘correct’ value is fiercely debated. Likewise in Spain, there is a commonly cited threshold value of €30,000 per QALY with a dearth of empirical justification. This paper sought to identify a cost-per-QALY threshold for the Spanish National Health Service (SNHS) by estimating the marginal cost per QALY at which the SNHS currently operates on average. This was achieved by exploiting data on 17 regional health services between the years 2008-2012 when the health budget experienced considerable cuts due to the global economic crisis. This paper uses econometric models based on the provoking work by Claxton et al in the UK (see the full paper if you’re interested in the model specification) to achieve this. Variations between Spanish regions over time allowed the authors to estimate the impact of health spending on outcomes (measured as quality-adjusted life expectancy); this was then translated into a cost-per-QALY value for the SNHS. The headline figures derived from the analysis give a threshold between €22,000 and €25,000 per QALY. This is substantially below the commonly cited threshold of €30,000 per QALY. There are, however (as to be expected) various limitations acknowledged by the authors, which means we should not take this threshold as set in stone. However, unlike the status quo, there is empirical evidence backing this threshold and it should stimulate further research and discussion about whether such a change should be implemented.


Thesis Thursday: Koonal Shah

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 Koonal Shah who has a PhD from the University of Sheffield. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Valuing health at the end of life
Aki Tsuchiya, Allan Wailoo
Repository link

What were the key questions you wanted to answer with your research?

My key research question was: Do members of the general public wish to place greater weight on a unit of health gain for end of life patients than on that for other types of patients? Or put more concisely: Is there evidence of public support for an end of life premium?

The research question was motivated by a policy introduced by NICE in 2009 [PDF], which effectively gives special weighting to health gains generated by life-extending end of life treatments. This represents an explicit departure from the Institute’s reference case position that all equal-sized health gains are of equal social value (the ‘a QALY is a QALY’ rule). NICE’s policy was justified in part by claims that it represented the preferences of society, but little evidence was available to either support or refute that premise. It was this gap in the evidence that inspired my research question.

I also sought to answer other questions, such as whether the focus on life extensions (rather than quality of life improvements) in NICE’s policy is consistent with public preferences, and whether people’s stated end of life-related preferences depend on the ways in which the preference elicitation tasks are designed, framed and presented.

Which methodologies did you use to elicit people’s preferences?

All four of my empirical studies used hypothetical choice exercises to elicit preferences from samples of the UK general public. NICE’s policy was used as the framework for the designs in each case. Three of the studies can be described as having used simple choice tasks, while one study specifically applied the discrete choice experiment methodology. The general approach was to ask survey respondents which of two hypothetical patients they thought should be treated, assuming that the health service had only enough funds to treat one of them.

In my final study, which focused on framing effects and study design considerations, I included attitudinal questions with Likert item responses alongside the hypothetical choice tasks. The rationale for including these questions was to examine the consistency of respondents’ views across two different approaches (spoiler: most people are not very consistent).

Your study included face-to-face interviews. Did these provide you with information that you weren’t able to obtain from a more general survey?

The surveys in my first two empirical studies were both administered via face-to-face interviews. In the first study, I conducted the interviews myself, while in the second study the interviews were subcontracted to a market research agency. I also conducted a small number of face-to-face interviews when pilot testing early versions of the surveys for my third and fourth studies. The piloting process was useful as it provided me with first-hand information about which aspects of the surveys did and did not work well when administered in practice. It also gave me a sense of how appropriate my questions were. The subject matter – prioritising between patients described as having terminal illnesses and poor prognoses – had the potential to be distressing for some people. My view was that I shouldn’t be including questions that I did not feel comfortable asking strangers in an interview setting.

The use of face-to-face interviews was particularly valuable in my first study as it allowed me to ask debrief questions designed to probe respondents and elicit qualitative information about the thinking behind their responses.

What factors influence people’s preferences for allocating health care resources at the end of life?

My research suggests that people’s preferences regarding the value of end of life treatments can depend on whether the treatment is life-extending or quality of life-improving. This is noteworthy because NICE’s end of life criteria accommodate life extensions but not quality of life improvements.

I also found that the amount of time that end of life patients have to ‘prepare for death’ was a consideration for a number of respondents. Some of my results suggest that observed preferences for prioritising the treatment of end of life patients may be driven by concern about how long the patients have known their prognosis rather than by concern about how long they have left to live, per se.

The wider literature suggests that the age of the end of life patients (which may act as a proxy for their role in their household or in society) may also matter. Some studies have reported evidence that respondents become less concerned about the number of remaining life years when the patients in question are relatively old. This is consistent with the ‘fair innings’ argument proposed by Alan Williams.

Given the findings of your study, are there any circumstances under which you would support an end of life premium?

My findings offer limited support for an end of life premium (though it should be noted that the wider literature is more equivocal). So it might be considered appropriate for NICE to abandon its end of life policy on the grounds that the population health losses that arise due to the policy are not justified by the evidence on societal preferences. However, there may be arguments for retaining some form of end of life weighting irrespective of societal preferences. For example, if the standard QALY approach systematically underestimates the benefits of end of life treatments, it may be appropriate to correct for this (though whether this is actually the case would itself need investigating).

Many studies reporting that people wish to prioritise the treatment of the severely ill have described severity in terms of quality of life rather than life expectancy. And some of my results suggest that support for an end of life premium would be stronger if it applied to quality of life-improving treatments. This suggests that weighting QALYs in accordance with continuous variables capturing quality of life as well as life expectancy may be more consistent with public preferences than the current practice of applying binary cut-offs based only on life expectancy information, and would address some of the criticisms of the arbitrariness of NICE’s policy.

Alastair Canaway’s journal round-up for 10th July 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.

Use-of-time and health-related quality of life in 10- to 13-year-old children: not all screen time or physical activity minutes are the same. Quality of life Research [PubMedPublished 3rd July 2017

“If you watch too much TV, it’ll make your eyes square” – something I heard a lot as a child. This first paper explores whether this is true (sort of) by examining associations between aspects of time use and HRQL in children aged 10-13 (disclaimer: I peer reviewed it and was pleased to see them incorporate my views). This paper aims to examine how different types of time use are linked to HRQL. Time use was examined by the Multimedia Activity Recall for Children and Adolescents (MARCA) which separates out time into physical activity (sport, active transport, and play), screen time (TV, videogames, computer use), and sleep. The PedsQL was used to assess HRQL, whilst dual x-ray absorptiometry was used to accurately assess fatness. There were a couple of novel aspects to this study, first, the use of absorptiometry to accurately measure body fat percentage rather than the problematic BMI/skin folds in children; second, separating time out into specific components rather than just treating physical activity or screen time as homogeneous components. The primary findings were that for both genders, fatness (negative), sport (positive) and development stage (negative) were associated with HRQL. For boys, the most important other predictor of HRQL was videogames (negative) whilst predictors for girls included television (negative), active transport (negative) and household income (positive). With the exception of ‘active travel’ for girls, I don’t think any of these findings are particularly surprising. As with all cross-sectional studies of this nature, the authors give caution to the results: inability to demonstrate causality. Despite this, it opens the door for various possibilities for future research, and ideas for shaping future interventions in children this age.

Raise the bar, not the threshold value: meeting patient preferences for palliative and end-of-life care. PharmacoEconomics – Open Published 27th June 2017

Health care ≠ end of life care. Whilst health care seeks to maximise health, can the same be said for end of life care? Probably not. This June saw an editorial elaborating on this issue. Health is an important facet of end of life care. However, there are other substantial objects of value in this context e.g. preferences for place of care, preparedness, reducing family burdens etc. Evidence suggests that people at end of life can value these ‘other’ objects more than health status or life extension. Thus there is value beyond that captured by health. This is an issue for the QALY framework where health and length of life are the sole indicators of benefit. The editorial highlights that this is not people wishing for higher cost-per-QALY thresholds at end of life, instead, it is supporting the valuation of key elements of palliative care within the end of life context. It argues that palliative care interventions often are not amenable to integration with survival time in a QALY framework, this effectively implies that end of life care interventions should be evaluated in a separate framework to health care interventions altogether. The editorial discusses the ICECAP-Supportive Care Measure (designed for economic evaluation of end of life measures) as progress within this research context. An issue with this approach is that it doesn’t address allocative efficiency issues (and comparability) with ‘normal’ health care interventions. However, if end of life care is evaluated separately to regular healthcare, it will lead to better decisions within the EoL context. There is merit to this justification, after all, end of life care is often funded via third parties and arguments could, therefore, be made for adopting a separate framework. This, however, is a contentious area with lots of ongoing interest. For balance, it’s probably worth pointing out Chris’s (he did not ask me to put this in!) book chapter which debates many of these issues, specifically in relation to defining objects of value at end of life and whether the QALY should be altogether abandoned at EoL.

Investigating the relationship between costs and outcomes for English mental health providers: a bi-variate multi-level regression analysis. European Journal of Health Economics [PubMedPublished 24th June 2017

Payment systems that incentivise cost control and quality improvements are increasingly used. In England, until recently, mental health services have been funded via block contracts that do not necessarily incentivise cost control and payment has not been linked to outcomes. The National Tariff Payment System for reimbursement has now been introduced to mental health care. This paper harnesses the MHMDS (now called MHSDS) using multi-level bivariate regression to investigate whether it is possible to control costs without negatively affecting outcomes. It does this by examining the relationship between costs and outcomes for mental health providers. Due to the nature of the data, an appropriate instrumental variable was not available, and so it is important to note that the results do not imply causality. The primary results found that after controlling for key variables (demographics, need, social and treatment) there was a minuscule negative correlation between residual costs and outcomes with little evidence of a meaningful relationship. That is, the data suggest that outcome improvements could be made without incurring a lot more cost. This implies that cost-containment efforts by providers should not undermine outcome-improving efforts under the new payment systems. Something to bear in mind when interpreting the results is that there was a rather large list of limitations associated with the analysis, most notably that the analysis was conducted at a provider level. Although it’s continually improving, there still remain issues with the MHMDS data: poor diagnosis coding, missing outcome data, and poor quality of cost data. As somebody who is yet to use MHMDS data, but plans to in the future, this was a useful paper for generating ideas regarding what is possible and the associated limitations.