Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 18th March 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.

Evaluation of intervention impact on health inequality for resource allocation. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 28th February 2019

How should decision-makers factor equity impacts into economic decisions? Can we trade off an intervention’s cost-effectiveness with its impact on unfair health inequalities? Is a QALY just a QALY or should we weight it more if it is gained by someone from a disadvantaged group? Can we assume that, because people of lower socioeconomic position lose more QALYs through ill health, that most interventions should, by default, reduce inequalities?

I really like the health equity plane. This is where you show health impacts (usually including a summary measure of cost-effectiveness like net health benefit or net monetary benefit) and equity impacts (which might be a change in slope index of inequality [SII] or relative index of inequality) on the same plane. This enables decision-makers to identify potential trade-offs between interventions that produce a greater benefit, but have less impact on inequalities, and those that produce a smaller benefit, but increase equity. I think there has been a debate over whether the ‘win-win’ quadrant should be south-east (which would be consistent with the dominant quadrant of the cost-effectiveness plane) or north-east, which is what seems to have been adopted as the consensus and is used here.

This paper showcases a reproducible method to estimate the equity impact of interventions. It considers public health interventions recommended by NICE from 2006-2016, with equity impacts estimated based on whether they targeted specific diseases, risk factors or populations. The disease distributions were based on hospital episode statistics data by deprivation (IMD). The study used equity weights to convert QALYs gained to different social groups into net social welfare. In this case, valuing the most disadvantaged fifth of people’s health at around 6-7 times that of the least disadvantaged fifth. I think there might still be work to be done around reaching consensus for equity weights.

The total expected effect on inequalities is small – full implementation of all recommendations would produce a reduction of the quality-adjusted life expectancy gap between the healthiest and least healthy from 13.78 to 13.34 QALYs. But maybe this is to be expected; NICE does not typically look at vaccinations or screening and has not looked at large scale public health programmes like the Healthy Child Programme in the whole. Reassuringly, where recommended interventions were likely to increase inequality, the trade-off between efficiency and equity was within the social welfare function they had used. The increase in inequality might be acceptable because the interventions were cost-effective – producing 5.6million QALYs while increasing the SII by 0.005. If these interventions are buying health at a good price, then you would hope this might then release money for other interventions that would reduce inequalities.

I suspect that public health folks might not like equity trade-offs at all – trading off equity and cost-effectiveness might be the moral equivalent of trading off human rights – you can’t choose between them. But the reality is that these kinds of trade-offs do happen, and like a lot of economic methods, it is about revealing these implicit trade-offs so that they become explicit, and having ‘accountability for reasonableness‘.

Future unrelated medical costs need to be considered in cost effectiveness analysis. The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published February 2019

This editorial says that NICE should include unrelated future medical costs in its decision making. At the moment, if NICE looks at a cardiovascular disease (CVD) drug, it might look at future costs related to CVD but it won’t include changes in future costs of cancer, or dementia, which may occur because individuals live longer. But usually unrelated QALY gains will be implicitly included; so there is an inconsistency. If you are a health economic modeller, you know that including unrelated costs properly is technically difficult. You might weight average population costs by disease prevalence so you get a cost estimate for people with coronary heart disease, diabetes, and people without either disease. Or you might have a general healthcare running cost that you can apply to future years. But accounting for a full matrix of competing causes of morbidity and mortality is very tricky if not impossible. To help with this, this group of authors produced the excellent PAID tool, which helps with doing this for the Netherlands (can we have one for the UK please?).

To me, including unrelated future costs means that in some cases ICERs might be driven more by the ratio of future costs to QALYs gained. Whereas currently, ICERs are often driven by the ratio of the intervention costs to QALYs gained. So it might be that a lot of treatments that are currently cost-effective no longer are, or we need to judge all interventions with a higher ICER willingness to pay threshold or value of a QALY. The authors suggest that, although including unrelated medical costs usually pushes up the ICER, it should ultimately result in better decisions that increase health.

There are real ethical issues here. I worry that including future unrelated costs might be used for an integrated care agenda in the NHS, moving towards a capitation system where the total healthcare spend on any one individual is capped, which I don’t necessarily think should happen in a health insurance system. Future developments around big data mean we will be able to segment the population a lot better and estimate who will benefit from treatments. But I think if someone is unlucky enough to need a lot of healthcare spending, maybe they should have it. This is risk sharing and, without it, you may get the ‘double jeopardy‘ problem.

For health economic modellers and decision-makers, a compromise might be to present analyses with related and unrelated medical costs and to consider both for investment decisions.

Overview of cost-effectiveness analysis. JAMA [PubMed] Published 11th March 2019

This paper probably won’t offer anything new to academic health economists in terms of methods, but I think it might be a useful teaching resource. It gives an interesting example of a model of ovarian cancer screening in the US that was published in February 2018. There has been a large-scale trial of ovarian cancer screening in the UK (the UKCTOCS), which has been extended because the results have been promising but mortality reductions were not statistically significant. The model gives a central ICER estimate of $106,187/QALY (based on $100 per screen) which would probably not be considered cost-effective in the UK.

I would like to explore one statement that I found particularly interesting, around the willingness to pay threshold; “This willingness to pay is often represented by the largest ICER among all the interventions that were adopted before current resources were exhausted, because adoption of any new intervention would require removal of an existing intervention to free up resources.”

The Culyer bookshelf model is similar to this, although as well as the ICER you also need to consider the burden of disease or size of the investment. Displacing a $110,000/QALY intervention for 1000 people with a $109,000/QALY intervention for a million people will bust your budget.

This idea works intuitively – if Liverpool FC are signing a new player then I might hope they are better than all of the other players, or at least better than the average player. But actually, as long as they are better than the worst player then the team will be improved (leaving aside issues around different positions, how they play together, etc.).

However, I think that saying that the reference ICER should be the largest current ICER might be a bit dangerous. Leaving aside inefficient legacy interventions (like unnecessary tonsillectomies etc), it is likely that the intervention being considered for investment and the current maximum ICER intervention to be displaced may both be new, expensive immunotherapies. It might be last in, first out. But I can’t see this happening; people are loss averse, so decision-makers and patients might not accept what is seen as a fantastic new drug for pancreatic cancer being approved then quickly usurped by a fantastic new leukaemia drug.

There has been a lot of debate around what the threshold should be in the UK; in England NICE currently use £20,000 – £30,000, up to a hypothetical maximum £300,000/QALY in very specific circumstances. UK Treasury value QALYs at £60,000. Work by Karl Claxton and colleagues suggests that marginal productivity (the ‘shadow price’) in the NHS is nearer to £5,000 – £15,000 per QALY.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. I don’t think the willingness-to-pay threshold for a new treatment should be the maximum ICER of a current portfolio of interventions; maybe it should be the marginal health production cost in a health system, as might be inferred from the Claxton work. Of course, investment decisions are made on other factors, like impact on health inequalities, not just on the ICER.


Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 19th November 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.

Valuation of health states considered to be worse than death—an analysis of composite time trade-off data from 5 EQ-5D-5L valuation studies. Value in Health Published 12th November 2018

I have a problem with the idea of health states being ‘worse than dead’, and I’ve banged on about it on this blog. Happily, this new article provides an opportunity for me to continue my campaign. Health state valuation methods estimate how much a person prefers being in a more healthy state. Positive values are easy to understand; 1.0 is twice as good as 0.5. But how about the negative values? Is -1.0 twice as bad as -0.5? How much worse than being dead is that? The purpose of this study is to evaluate whether or not negative EQ-5D-5L values meaningfully discriminate between different health states.

The study uses data from EQ-5D-5L valuation studies conducted in Singapore, the Netherlands, China, Thailand, and Canada. Altogether, more than 5000 people provided valuations of 10 states each. As a simple measure of severity, the authors summed the number of steps from full health in all domains, giving a value from 0 (11111) to 20 (55555). We’d expect this measure of severity of states to correlate strongly with the mean utility values derived from the composite time trade-off (TTO) exercise.

Taking Singapore as an example, the mean of positive values (states better than dead) decreased from 0.89 to 0.21 with increasing severity, which is reassuring. The mean of negative values, on the other hand, ranged from -0.98 to -0.89. Negative values were clustered between -0.5 and -1.0. Results were similar across the other countries. In all except Thailand, observed negative values were indistinguishable from random noise. There was no decreasing trend in mean utility values as severity increased for states worse than dead. A linear mixed model with participant-specific intercepts and an ANOVA model confirmed the findings.

What this means is that we can’t say much about states worse than dead except that they are worse than dead. How much worse doesn’t relate to severity, which is worrying if we’re using these values in trade-offs against states better than dead. Mostly, the authors frame this lack of discriminative ability as a practical problem, rather than anything more fundamental. The discussion section provides some interesting speculation, but my favourite part of the paper is an analogy, which I’ll be quoting in future: “it might be worse to be lost at sea in deep waters than in a pond, but not in any way that truly matters”. Dead is dead is dead.

Determining value in health technology assessment: stay the course or tack away? PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 9th November 2018

The cost-per-QALY approach to value in health care is no stranger to assault. The majority of criticisms are ill-founded special pleading, but, sometimes, reasonable tweaks and alternatives have been proposed. The aim of this paper was to bring together a supergroup of health economists to review and discuss these reasonable alternatives. Specifically, the questions they sought to address were: i) what should health technology assessment achieve, and ii) what should be the approach to value-based pricing?

The paper provides an unstructured overview of a selection of possible adjustments or alternatives to the cost-per-QALY method. We’re very briefly introduced to QALY weighting, efficiency frontiers, and multi-criteria decision analysis. The authors don’t tell us why we ought (or ought not) to adopt these alternatives. I was hoping that the paper would provide tentative answers to the normative questions posed, but it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even outline the thought processes required to answer them.

The purpose of this paper seems to be to argue that alternative approaches aren’t sufficiently developed to replace the cost-per-QALY approach. But it’s hardly a strong defence. I’m a big fan of the cost-per-QALY as a necessary (if not sufficient) part of decision making in health care, and I agree with the authors that the alternatives are lacking in support. But the lack of conviction in this paper scares me. It’s tempting to make a comparison between the EU and the QALY.

How can we evaluate the cost-effectiveness of health system strengthening? A typology and illustrations. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 3rd November 2018

Health care is more than the sum of its parts. This is particularly evident in low- and middle-income countries that might lack strong health systems and which therefore can’t benefit from a new intervention in the way a strong system could. Thus, there is value in health system strengthening. But, as the authors of this paper point out, this value can be difficult to identify. The purpose of this study is to provide new methods to model the impact of health system strengthening in order to support investment decisions in this context.

The authors introduce standard cost-effectiveness analysis and economies of scope as relevant pieces of the puzzle. In essence, this paper is trying to marry the two. An intervention is more likely to be cost-effective if it helps to provide economies of scope, either by making use of an underused platform or providing a new platform that would improve the cost-effectiveness of other interventions. The authors provide a typology with three types of health system strengthening: i) investing in platform efficiency, ii) investing in platform capacity, and iii) investing in new platforms. Examples are provided for each. Simple mathematical approaches to evaluating these are described, using scaling factors and disaggregated cost and outcome constraints. Numerical demonstrations show how these approaches can reveal differences in cost-effectiveness that arise through changes in technical efficiency or the opportunity cost linked to health system strengthening.

This paper is written with international development investment decisions in mind, and in particular the challenge of investments that can mostly be characterised as health system strengthening. But it’s easy to see how many – perhaps all – health services are interdependent. If anything, the broader impact of new interventions on health systems should be considered as standard. The methods described in this paper provide a useful framework to tackle these issues, with food for thought for anybody engaged in cost-effectiveness analysis.


Sam Watson’s journal round-up for Monday 20th August 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.

A Randomized Trial of Epinephrine in Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest. New England Journal of Medicine. Published July 2018.

Adrenaline (epinephrine) is often administered to patients in cardiac arrest in order to increase blood flow and improve heart rhythm. However, there had been some concern about the potential adverse effects of using adrenaline, and a placebo controlled trial was called for. This article presents the findings of this trial. While there is little economics in this article, it is an interesting example of what I believe to be erroneous causal thinking, especially in the way it was reported in the media. For example, The Guardian‘s headline was,

Routine treatment for cardiac arrest doubles risk of brain damage – study

while The Telegraph went for the even more inflammatory

Cardiac arrest resuscitation drug has needlessly brain-damaged thousands

But what did the study itself say about their findings:

the use of epinephrine during resuscitation for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest resulted in a significantly higher rate of survival at 30 days than the use of placebo. […] although the rate of survival was slightly better, the trial did not show evidence of a between-group difference in the rate of survival with a favorable neurologic outcome. This result was explained by a higher proportion of patients who survived with severe neurologic disability in the epinephrine group.

Clearly, a slightly more nuanced view, but nevertheless it leaves room for the implication that the adrenaline is causing the neurological damage. Indeed the authors go on to say that “the use of epinephrine did not improve neurologic outcome.” But a counterfactual view of causation should lead us to ask what would have happened to those who survived with brain damage had they not been given adrenaline.

We have a competing risks set up: (A) survival with favourable neurologic outcome, (B) survival with neurologic impairment, and (C) death. The proportion of patients with outcome (A) was slightly higher in the adrenaline group (although not statistically significant so apparently no effect eyes roll), the proportion of patients with outcome (B) was a lot higher in the adrenaline group, and the proportion of patients with outcome (C) was lower in the adrenaline group. This all suggests to me that the adrenaline caused patients who would have otherwise died to mostly survive with brain damage, and a few to survive impairment free, not that adrenaline caused those who would have otherwise been fine to have brain damage. So the question in response to the above quotes is then, is death a preferable neurologic outcome to brain damage? As trite as this may sound, it is a key health economics question – how do we value these health states?

Incentivizing Safer Sexual Behavior: Evidence from a Lottery Experiment on HIV Prevention. American Economic Review: Applied Economics. [RePEcPublished July 2018. 

This article presents a randomised trial testing an interesting idea. People who are at high risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and often those who engage in riskier sexual behaviour. A basic decision theoretic conception would be that those individuals don’t consider the costs to be high enough relative to the benefits (although there is clearly some divide between this explanation and how people actually think in terms of risky sexual behaviour, much like any other seemingly irrational behaviour). Conditional cash transfers can change the balance of the decision to incentivise people to act differently, what this study looks at is using a conditional lottery with the chance of high winnings instead, since this should be more attractive still to risk-seeking individuals. While the trial was designed to reduce HIV prevalance, entry into the lottery in the treatment arm was conditional on being free of two curable STIs at each round – this enabled people who fail to be eligible again, and also allowed the entry of HIV-positive individuals whose sexual behaviour is perhaps the most important to reducing HIV transmission. The lottery arm of the trial was found to have 20% lower incidence over the study period compared to the control arm – quite impressive. However, the cost-effectiveness of the program was estimated to be $882 per HIV infection averted on the basis of lottery payments alone, and around $3,300 per case averted all in. This seems quite high to me. Despite a plethora of non-comparable outcomes in cost-effectiveness studies of HIV public health interventions other studies have reported costs per cases averted an order of magnitude lower than this. The conclusions seems to be then that the idea works well – it’s just too costly to be of much use.

Monitoring equity in universal health coverage with essential services for neglected tropical diseases: an analysis of data reported for five diseases in 123 countries over 9 years. The Lancet: Global Health. [PubMedPublished July 2018. 

Universal health coverage (UHC) is one the key parts of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, good health and well-being. The text of the SDG identifies UHC as being about access to services – but this word “access” in the context of health care is often vague and nebulous. Many people mistakenly treat access to health services as synonymous with use of health services, but having access to something is not dependent on whether you actually use it or not. Barriers to a person’s ability to use health care for a given complaint are numerous: financial cost, time cost, lack of education, language barrier, and so forth. It is therefore difficult to quantify and measure access. Hogan and co-authors proposed an index to quantify and monitor UHC across the world that was derived from a number of proxies such as women with four or more antenatal visits, children with vaccines, blood pressure, and health worker density. Their work is useful but of course flawed – these proxies all capture something different, either access, use, or health outcomes – and it is unclear that they are all sensitive to the same underlying construct. Needless to say, we should still be able to diagnose access issues from some combination of these data. This article extends the work of Hogan et al to look at neglected tropical diseases, which affect over 1.5 billion, yet which are, obviously, neglected. The paper uses ‘preventative chemotherapy coverage’ as its key measure, which is the proportion of those needed the chemotherapy who actually receive it. This is a measure of use and not access (although they should be related), for example, there may be near universal availability of the chemotherapy, but various factors on the demand side limiting use. Needless to say, the measure should still be a useful diagnostic tool and it is interesting to see how much worse countries perform on this metric for neglected tropical diseases than general health care.