Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 23rd July 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.

Quantifying life: understanding the history of quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs). Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 3rd July 2018

We’ve had some fun talking about the history of the QALY here on this blog. The story of how the QALY came to be important in health policy has been obscured. This paper seeks to address that. The research adopts a method called ‘multiple streams analysis’ (MSA) in order to explain how QALYs caught on. The MSA framework identifies three streams – policy, politics, and problems – and considers the ‘policy entrepreneurs’ involved. For this study, archival material was collected from the National Archives, Department of Health files, and the University of York. The researchers also conducted 44 semi-structured interviews with academics and civil servants.

The problem stream highlights shocks to the UK economy in the late 1960s, coupled with growth in health care costs due to innovations and changing expectations. Cost-effectiveness began to be studied and, increasingly, policymaking was meant to be research-based and accountable. By the 80s, the likes of Williams and Maynard were drawing attention to apparent inequities and inefficiencies in the health service. The policy stream gets going in the 40s and 50s when health researchers started measuring quality of life. By the early 60s, the idea of standardising these measures to try and rank health states was on the table. Through the late 60s and early 70s, government economists proliferated and proved themselves useful in health policy. The meeting of Rachel Rosser and Alan Williams in the mid-70s led to the creation of QALYs as we know them, combining quantity and quality of life on a 0-1 scale. Having acknowledged inefficiencies and inequities in the health service, UK politicians and medics were open to new ideas, but remained unconvinced by the QALY. Yet it was a willingness to consider the need for rationing that put the wheels in motion for NICE, and the politics stream – like the problem and policy stream – characterises favourable conditions for the use of the QALY.

The MSA framework also considers ‘policy entrepreneurs’ who broker the transition from idea to implementation. The authors focus on the role of Alan Williams and of the Economic Advisers’ Office. Williams was key in translating economic ideas into forms that policymakers could understand. Meanwhile, the Economic Advisers’ Office encouraged government economists to engage with academics at HESG and later the QoL Measurement Group (which led to the creation of EuroQol).

The main takeaway from the paper is that good ideas only prevail in the right conditions and with the right people. It’s important to maintain multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder networks. In the case of the QALY, the two-way movement of economists between government and academia was crucial.

I don’t completely understand or appreciate the MSA framework, but this paper is an enjoyable read. My only reservation is with the way the authors describe the QALY as being a dominant aspect of health policy in the UK. I don’t think that’s right. It’s dominant within a niche of a niche of a niche – that is, health technology assessment for new pharmaceuticals. An alternative view is that the QALY has in fact languished in a quiet corner of British policymaking, and been completely excluded in some other countries.

Accuracy of patient recall for self‐reported doctor visits: is shorter recall better? Health Economics [PubMed] Published 2nd July 2018

In designing observational studies, such as clinical trials, I have always recommended that self-reported resource use be collected no less frequently than every 3 months. This is partly based on something I once read somewhere that I can’t remember, but partly also on some logic that the accuracy of people’s recall decays over time. This paper has come to tell me how wrong I’ve been.

The authors start by highlighting that recall can be subject to omission, whereby respondents forget relevant information, or commission, whereby respondents include events that did not occur. A key manifestation of the latter is ‘telescoping’, whereby events are included from outside the recall period. We might expect commission to be more likely in short recalls and omission to be more common for long recalls. But there’s very little research on this regarding health service use.

This study uses data from a large trial in diabetes care in Australia, in which 5,305 participants were randomised to receive either 2-week, 3-month, or 12-month recall for how many times they had seen a doctor. Then, the trial data were matched with Medicare data to identify the true levels of resource use.

Over 92% of 12-month recall participants made an error, 76% of the 3-month recall, and 46% of the 2-week recall. The patterns of errors were different. There was very little under-reporting in the 2-week recall sample, with 3-month giving the most over-reporting and 12-month giving the most under-reporting. 12-month recall was associated with the largest number of days reported in error. However, when the authors account for the longer period being considered, and estimate a relative error, the impact of misreporting is smallest for the 12-month recall and greatest for the 2-week recall. This translates into a smaller overall bias for the longest recall period. The authors also find that older, less educated, unemployed, and low‐income patients exhibit higher measurement errors.

Health surveys and comparative studies that estimate resource use over a long period of time should use 12-month recall unless they can find a reason to do otherwise. The authors provide some examples from economic evaluations to demonstrate how selecting shorter recall periods could result in recommending the wrong decisions. It’s worth trying to understand the reasons why people can more accurately recall service use over 12 months. That way, data collection methods could be designed to optimise recall accuracy.

Who should receive treatment? An empirical enquiry into the relationship between societal views and preferences concerning healthcare priority setting. PLoS One [PubMed] Published 27th June 2018

Part of the reason the QALY faces opposition is that it has been used in a way that might not reflect societal preferences for resource allocation. In particular, the idea that ‘a QALY is a QALY is a QALY’ may conflict with notions of desert, severity, or process. We’re starting to see more evidence for groups of people holding different views, which makes it difficult to come up with decision rules to maximise welfare. This study considers some of the perspectives that people adopt, which have been identified in previous research – ‘equal right to healthcare’, ‘limits to healthcare’, and ‘effective and efficient healthcare’ – and looks at how they are distributed in the Netherlands. Using four willingness to trade-off (WTT) exercises, the authors explore the relationship between these views and people’s preferences about resource allocation. Trade-offs are between quality vs quantity of life, health maximisation vs equality, children vs the elderly, and lifestyle-related risk vs adversity. The authors sought to test several hypotheses: i) that ‘equal right’ respondents have a lower WTT; ii) ‘limits to healthcare’ people express a preference for health gains, health maximisation, and treating people with adversity; and iii) ‘effective and efficient’ people support health maximisation, treating children, and treating people with adversity.

A representative online sample of adults in the Netherlands (n=261) was recruited. The first part of the questionnaire collected socio-demographic information. The second part asked questions necessary to allocate people to one of the three perspectives using Likert scales based on a previous study. The third part of the questionnaire consisted of the four reimbursement scenarios. Participants were asked to identify the point (in terms of the relevant quantities) at which they would be indifferent between two options.

The distribution of the viewpoints was 65% ‘equal right’, 23% ‘limits to healthcare’, and 7% ‘effective and efficient’. 6% couldn’t be matched to one of the three viewpoints. In each scenario, people had the option to opt out of trading. 24% of respondents were non-traders for all scenarios and, of these, 78% were of the ‘equal right’ viewpoint. Unfortunately, a lot of people opted out of at least one of the trades, and for a wide variety of reasons. Decisionmakers can’t opt out, so I’m not sure how useful this is.

The authors describe many associations between individual characteristics, viewpoints, and WTT results. But the tested hypotheses were broadly supported. While the findings showed that different groups were more or less willing to trade, the points of indifference for traders within the groups did not vary. So while you can’t please everyone in health care priority setting, this study shows how policies might be designed to satisfy the preferences of people with different perspectives.


To whom the benefits?

An argument that often comes up when it comes to the distribution of scarce health resources is who should receive them. Many different arguments are posed with varying degrees of sophistication. Various studies have elicited population preferences for distributing scarce health resources. Eliciting societal preferences for the distribution of resources is important but does not necessarily reveal the maxim by which decisions are made. People may favour the young over the old but is this because of a maxim to do with preferring those who have not had a ‘fair innings’ or because the returns to healthcare spending may be greater in the young due to the higher remaining life expectancy and increased economic output? It is important then to also bear in mind the arguments on which distributional decisions are founded. Perhaps, with a greater awareness of the objections and benefits of certain decision criteria, people may re-evaluate their choices.

In many countries, the allocation of health care is often more equal than other goods – it is ‘special’. Its ‘specialness’ can be seen since we would consider its distribution in isolation of other social goods to be morally significant. We would find it morally repugnant if access to health care was determined on the basis of income or assets while some inequality in income is not necessarily objectionable. Health care should therefore be treated differently from mere commodities, such as clothing or cars. Clearly then, equality is an important concern, but equality of what exactly?

Equality of opportunity

Norman Daniels argues that of central importance to health care is the maintenance of equality of opportunity.  Daniels asserts that health care protects the range of opportunities available to an individual – the way they can participate in social, political and economic life. He identifies this as a distinctly Rawlsian theory of justice as fairness. Importantly, he notes that this equality of opportunity is not based on happiness, welfare or utility. He considers this a strength and points out that disabled individuals often rank their welfare higher than do people imagining life with such a disability, or indeed someone with an acute illness. But, the disability may cause a loss to capabilities and opportunities that should be addressed regardless of welfare. This, he discusses, is a weakness of cost-utility analysis.

The equality of opportunity thesis may be subject to some objections. In contemporary society, gender and ethnicity still play a role in determining one’s opportunities. This then may provide an argument for providing gender reassignment surgery or skin colour alteration to those for whom there would be no medical benefit. Basing equality on welfare or utility may not be subject to the same objections since the effect of such a surgery both physically and in altering physical features important to personal identity may be significantly negative in terms of well-being.

Luck egalitarianism

One of the greatest debates in current political and economic discourse surrounding the distribution of health care resources is the importance of personal responsibility. A popular standpoint is one of luck egalitarianism (I have discussed this before). Health care should iron out the inequalities over which the individual has no personal control and beyond that the individual should be responsible for maintaining their own health. To see it from a different angle – if we had two individuals with the same health state the distribution of health care between them should be weighted by prudence. For example, if the driver and passenger of a car were admitted to hospital after a crash which may be considered the driver’s fault, even if it were just a momentary lapse in concentration, the passenger would have a greater claim to health care. However, in this situation, luck egalitarianism does admittedly seem too harsh. Supporters of this school of thought often argue that smokers, the obese, drug addicts and so forth have less of a right to health care, since they were aware of the risks of their actions but undertook them anyway.

I personally believe luck egalitarianism to not be an adequate account of justice. One’s physical reaction to heavy drinking or smoking is to a great extent determined by factors out of ones control, such as genes and socioeconomic factors. Pregnancy might be argued to have been a choice and so should not be supported under luck egalitarianism. Similarly, luck egalitarianism has difficulty distinguishing between reconstructive surgery and cosmetic surgery. An individual’s welfare may be affected by their appearance to some extent, something which they may have no control over, thus, providing cosmetic surgery would be supported.

The priority view

These previous accounts have all been of egalitarianism. However, egalitarianism faces an important objection, raised by Derek Parfit and others. The goal of egalitarianism in health care is to ensure an equality of opportunity or of utility, for example. However, this could easily be achieved by reducing the opportunities or utility of those at the top of the scale. This would certainly be rejected as a course of action. Parfit calls this the ‘leveling down’ objection. He revises egalitarianism and instead proposes prioritarianism or the ‘priority view’. Resources should be distributed in society weighted by where you are in the distribution – those at the bottom of the scale should receive greater benefits. This would reduce inequality while not being subject to the leveling down objection. In this situation, we could imagine a luck prioritarian position or modifying any of the other previously mentioned ideas.

England’s current system of allocation, as maintained by NICE, could be characterised as egalitarian. However, I might argue that it is only weakly egalitarian. It is not aiming to ensure everyone has the same level of utility; rather that everyone has the same opportunity to improve utility. In general, it does not take into account prudence or age or any other personal characteristics. This would have the effect of moving everyone’s health upward and would be egalitarian in the sense of reducing the gap between bottom and top, but this is only because there is a limit to the improvements healthcare can make (QALYs do not go higher than one). If there were no limit to health improvements our current system would not affect the distribution of health but shift everyone equally up the scale. I also believe that opportunity is also a concern as well as utility and since opportunity is correlated with health and quality of life, reducing inequality of one should reduce the inequality in the other. I think, then, that a prioritarian position is perhaps the most tenable – we should favour health care interventions that benefit the least healthy. What weights might be attached to the worst off is open to debate and the philosophical dilemmas to do with aggregating welfare still stand, but in any case, I think the priority view is better than our current system.

From health care to health

As a final note, I will say that I have only discussed the distribution of health care. More and more evidence is showing that as a determinant of overall health, health care is only a small contributor. Health care is ‘the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff’. To extend the above theories to health rather than health care is problematic. We cannot redistribute health directly, so must redistribute the social determinants of health such as housing, income, autonomy in the workplace, etc. In this case, favouring a health distribution on the basis of ability to pay (favouring the poor) would not be morally repugnant. Does this mean the health is not a ‘special’ good, whereas health care is? It at least means that health should be treated differently to health care. In any case, evaluating these ethical and philosophical arguments can only strengthen the way we make these decisions. Perhaps ethics should be more widely taught to policy makers, economists, and others.

Read more

Arneson, R.J., 2000. Luck Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism. Ethics, 110(2), pp.339–349.

Daniels, N., 2001. Justice, health, and healthcare. The American journal of bioethics : AJOB, 1(2), pp.2–16.

Segall, S., 2010. Is Health (Really) Special? Health Policy between Rawlsian and Luck Egalitarian Justice. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 27(4), pp.344–358.

A comment on health inequality

A recent article by Benjamin Ho and Sita Nataraj Slavov, which I picked up via Marginal Revolution, argues that health inequality is falling. The argument is that life expectancy for the 1% dying at the bottom end of the age-at-death distribution has increased by more than the life expectancy for the 1% at the top. I’m struggling to think of much academic work being done to look at levels of health inequality in this way. However, I’m not sure what answering such questions could add.

Existing work

Plenty of work has been done on how to measure health inequality. It seems a pretty heinous crime to talk about health equality without mentioning Culyer and Wagstaff. More recently, new models of health inequality have been developed that bare varying levels of equivalence to a standard concentration curve (see herehereherehere etc). But the authors of the aforementioned article are really interested in pure health inequality, irrelevant of income or socio-economic indicators. Some work has been done here too (see here, here, here etc); indeed, the age-at-death distribution thing was done by Le Grand.

Pure health inequality

Health and income are very different in a number of ways, and it seems a misnomer to compare income inequality with health inequality. The most important difference, probably, is how society views the two. Society has some aversion to income inequality and also aversion to health inequality. However, we don’t just prefer a more equal distribution of health; we want equal full health (i.e. health maximisation). Assuming diminishing marginal returns to health care (in terms of health), we will tend to prioritise those in worse health and tend towards equality. I would argue that health can only increase indefinitely in terms of longevity. We may live longer and longer but I think ‘full health’ is a very real ceiling while we’re alive. It simply isn’t possible for a super-rich elite to develop in terms of health. What would these people be like? Bionic presumably, but that’s a different debate. Even if health could be amassed indefinitely it wouldn’t be, as health has no value in exchange.

For me (given society’s aversion to inequality, technological progress and a maximum level of health at any point in time), movement towards equal health seems inevitable. You don’t need to agree with the Grossman model to accept that health represents a kind of ‘stock’. It therefore bares more resemblance to wealth than to income. Health requires some effort to maintain, but not to the same degree as income. Ho and Slavov’s article also introduces the idea of a lottery; luck plays an important role here. Society reacts differently to an income shock (say, unemployment) than it does to a health shock (say, being hit by a car). As with income there might be fair and unfair inequalities, but either way society is going to attach more weight to reimbursing an individual’s loss of health than an individual’s loss of income (unless, maybe, the latter is a result of the former). The same applies to those dealt a nasty hand at birth. In countries where health care is dependent on ability to pay there will certainly be more of a link between health and income; and thus between health inequality and income inequality. In countries like the UK, income inequality seems less likely to affect health inequality.

Health is becoming more equal; I won’t disagree with that. But, for the reasons outlined above, this seems somewhat inevitable. I suppose that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate it, but it does raise into question the value of doing so when there are real discrepancies between different demographics’ health that need addressing.

Cynics may spot the benefit of such an approach for those at the top of the income distribution…