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.

Credits

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.

Title
Valuing health at the end of life
Supervisors
Aki Tsuchiya, Allan Wailoo
Repository link
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/17579

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.

Thesis Thursday: Estela Capelas Barbosa

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 Estela Capelas Barbosa who graduated with a PhD from the University of York. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Overall unfair inequality in health care: an application to Brazil
Supervisor
Richard Cookson
Repository link
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16649/

What’s the difference between fair and unfair inequality, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

Not all inequality is the same. Whilst most inequality in health and health care is unwanted, one could argue that some inequality is even desirable. For example, we all agree that women should receive more care than men because they have a higher need for health care. The same argument could be used for children. Therefore, when looking into inequality, from a philosophical point of view, it is important to distinguish between inequality that is deemed fair (as in my women’s example) and that considered unfair. But there is a catch! Because ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ are normative value judgements, different people may have different views as to what is fair or unfair. That’s why, in the thesis, I worked hard to come up with a framework that was flexible enough to allow for different views of fair and unfair.

Your thesis describes a novel way of thinking about inequality. What led you to believe that other conceptualisations were inadequate?

Previously, inequality in health care was either dealt with in overall terms, using a Gini coefficient type of analysis, or focused on income and socioeconomic inequality (see Wagstaff and Van Doorslaer, 2004). As a field researcher in Brazil, I had first-hand experience that there was more to unfair inequality than income. I remember personally meeting a very wealthy man that had many difficulties in accessing the healthcare system simply because he lived in a very remote rural area of the country. I wanted to better understand this and look beyond income to explain inequality in Brazil. Thus, neither of the well-established methods seemed really appropriate for my analysis. I knew I could adjust my Gini for need, but this type of analysis did not explicitly allow for a distinction between unfair and fair inequality. At the other extreme, income-related inequality was just a very narrow definition of unfairness. Although the established methods were my starting point, I agreed with Fleurbaey and Schokkaert that there could be yet another way of looking at inequality in health care, and I drew inspiration from their proposed method for health and made adjustments and modifications for the application to health care.

What were some of your key findings about the sources of inequality, and how were they measured in your data?

I guess my most important finding is that the sources of unfair inequality have changed between 1998 and 2013. For example, the contribution of income to unfair inequality decreased in this time for physician visits and mammography screening, yet for cervical screening it nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013. I have also found that there are other sources of inequality which are important (sometimes even more than income), as for example having private health insurance, education, living in urban areas and region.

As to my data, it came from Health Supplement of the Brazilian National Household Sample Survey for the years 1998, 2003 and 2008 and the first National Health Survey, conducted in 2013 (see www.ibge.gov.br). The surveys use standardised questionnaires and rely on self-report for most questions, particularly those related to health care coverage and health status.

Your analysis looks at a relatively long period of time. What can you tell us about long-term trends in Brazil?

It is difficult to talk about long-term trends in Brazil at the moment. Our (universal) healthcare system has only been in place since 1988 and, since the last wave of data (in 2013), there has been a strong political movement to dismantle the national system and sell it to the private sector. I guess the movement to reduce and/or privatise the NHS also exists here, but, unlike in the UK, our national system has always been massively under-resourced, so it is not as highly-regarded by the population.

Having said that, it is fair to say that in its first 25 years of existence, Brazil has accomplished a lot in terms of healthcare (I have described – in Portuguese – some of the achievements and challenges). The Brazilian National Health System covers over 200 million people and accounts for nearly 500 thousand hospital beds. In terms of inequality, over time, it has decreased for physician visits and cervical screening, though for mammography there is no clear trend.

What would you like to see policymakers in Brazil prioritise in respect to reducing inequality?

First and foremost, I would like policymakers to understand that over three-quarters of the Brazilian population relies on the national system as their one and only health care provider. Second, I would like to reinforce the idea that social inequality in health care in Brazil is not only and indeed not primarily related to income. In fact, other social variables such as education, region, urban or rural residency and health insurance status are as important or even more important than income. This implies that there are supply side actions that can be taken, which should be much easier to implement. For example, more health care equipment, such as MRIs and CT scanners could be purchased for the North and Northeast regions. This could potentially reduce unfair inequality. Policies can also be directed at improving access to care in rural regions, although this factor is not as important a contributor to inequality as it used to be. I guess the overall message is: there are several things that can be done to reduce unfair inequality in Brazil, but all depend on political will and understanding the importance of the healthcare system for the health of the population.