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.

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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.

 

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On the commensurability of efficiency

In this week’s round-up, I highlighted a recent paper in the journal Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. There are some interesting ideas presented regarding the challenge of decision-making at the individual patient level, and in particular a supposed trade-off between achieving efficiency and satisfying health need.

The gist of the argument is that these two ‘values’ are incommensurable in the sense that the comparative value of two choices is ambiguous where the achievement of efficiency and need satisfaction needs to be traded. In the journal round-up, I highlighted 2 criticisms. First, I suggested that efficiency and health need satisfaction are commensurable. Second, I suggested that the paper did not adequately tackle the special nature of microlevel decision-making. The author – Anders Herlitz – was gracious enough to respond to my comments with several tweets.

Here, I’d like to put forth my reasoning on the subject (albeit with an ignorance of the background literature on incommensurability and other matters of ethics).

Consider a machine gun

A machine gun is far more efficient than a pistol, right? Well, maybe. A machine gun can shoot more bullets than a pistol over a sustained period. Likewise, a doctor who can treat 50 patients per day is more efficient than a doctor who can treat 20 patients per day.

However, the premise of this entire discussion, as established by Herlitz, is values. Herlitz introduces efficiency as a value and not as some dispassionate indicator of return on input. When we are considering values – as we necessarily are when we are discussing decision-making and more generally ‘what matters’ – we cannot take the ‘more bullets’ approach to assessing efficiency.

That’s because ‘more bullets’ is not what we mean when we talk about the value of efficiency. The production function is fundamental to our understanding of efficiency as a value. Once values are introduced, it is plain to see that in the context of war (where value is attached to a greater number of deaths) a machine gun may very well be considered more efficient. However, bearing a machine gun is far less efficient than bearing a pistol in a civilian context because we value a situation that results in fewer deaths.

In this analogy, bullets are health care and deaths are (somewhat confusingly, I admit) health improvement. Treating more people is not better because we want to provide more health care, but because we want to improve people’s health (along with some other basket of values).

Efficiency only has value with respect to the outcome in whose terms it is defined, and is therefore always commensurable with that outcome. That is, the production function is an inherent and necessary component of an efficiency to which we attach value.

I believe that Herlitz’s idea of incommensurability could be a useful one. Different outcomes may well be incommensurable in the way described in the paper. But efficiency has no place in this discussion. The incommensurability Herlitz describes in his paper seems to be a simple conflict between utilitarianism and prioritarianism, though I don’t have the wherewithal to pursue that argument so I’ll leave it there!

Microlevel efficiency trade-offs

Having said all that, I do think there could be a special decision-making challenge regarding efficiency at the microlevel. And that might partly explain Herlitz’s suggestion that efficiency is incommensurable with other outcomes.

There could be an incommensurability between values that can be measured in their achievement at the individual level (e.g. health improvement) and values that aren’t measured with individual-level outcomes (e.g. prioritisation of more severe patients). Those two outcomes are incommensurable in the way Herlitz described, but the simple fact that we tend to think about the former as an efficiency argument and the latter as an equity argument is irrelevant. We could think about both in efficiency terms (for example, treating n patients of severity x is more efficient than treating n-1 patients of severity x, or n patients of severity x-1), we just don’t. The difficulty is that this equity argument is meaningless at the individual level because it relies on information about outcomes outside the microlevel. The real challenge at the microlevel, therefore, is to acknowledge scope for efficiency in all outcomes of value. The incommensurability that matters is between microlevel and higher-level assessments of value.

As an aside, I was surprised that the Rule of Rescue did not get a mention in the paper. This is a perfect example of a situation in which arguments that tend to be made on efficiency grounds are thrown out and another value (the duty to save an immediately endangered life) takes over. One doesn’t need to think very hard about how Rule of Rescue decision-making could be framed as efficient.

In short, efficiency is never incommensurable because it is never an end in itself. If you’re concerned with being more efficient for the sake of being more efficient then you are probably not making very efficient decisions.

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