Are QALYs #ableist?

As many of us who have had to review submitted journal articles, thesis defenses, grant applications, white papers, and even published literature know, providing feedback on something that is poorly conceived is much harder than providing feedback on something well done.

This is going to be hard.

Who is ValueOurHealth?

The video above comes from the website of “ValueOurHealth.org”; I would tell you more about them, but there is no “About Us” menu item on the website. However, the website indicates that they are a group of patient organizations concerned about:

“The use of flawed, discriminatory value assessments [that] could threaten access to care for patients with chronic illnesses and people with disabilities.”

In particular, who find issue with value assessments that

“place a value on the life of a human based on their health status and assume every patient will respond the same way to treatments.”

QALYs, according to these concerned patient groups, assign a value to human beings. People with lower values (like Jessica, in the video above), then, will be denied coverage because their life is “valued less than someone in perfect health” which means “less value is also placed on treating” them. (Many will be quick to notice that health states and QALYs are used interchangeably here. I try to explain why below.)

It’s not like this is a well-intended rogue group who simply misunderstands the concept of a QALY, requires someone to send them a polite email, and then we can all move on. Other groups have also asserted that QALYs unfairly discriminate against the aged and disabled, and include AimedAlliance, Alliance for Patient Access, Institute for Patient Access, Alliance for Aging Research, and Global Liver Institute. There are likely many more patient groups that abhor QALYs (and definite articles/determiners, it seems) out there, and are justifiably concerned about patient access to therapy. But these are all the ones I could find through a quick search and sitting from my perch in Canada.

Why do they hate QALYs?

One can infer pretty quickly that ValueOurHealth and their illustrative message is largely motivated by another very active organization, the “Partnership to Improve Patient Care” (PIPC). The video, and the arguments about “assigning QALYs” to people, seem to stem from a white paper produced by the PIPC, which in turn cites a very nicely written paper by Franco Sassi (of Imperial College London), that explains QALY and DALY calculations for researchers and policymakers.

The PIPC white paper, in fact, uses the very same calculation provided by Prof. Sassi to illustrate the impact of preventing a case of tuberculosis. However, unlike Prof. Sassi’s illustrative example, the PIPC fails to quantify the QALYs gained by the intervention. Instead they simply focus on the QALYs an individual who has tuberculosis for 6 months will experience. (0.36, versus 0.50, for those keeping score). After some further discussion about problems with measuring health states, the PIPC white paper then skips ahead to ethical problems with QALYs central to their position, citing a Value in Health paper by Erik Nord and colleagues. One of the key problems with the QALY according to the PIPC and argued in the Nord paper goes as follows:

“Valuing health gains in terms of QALYs means that life-years gained in full health—through, for instance, prevention of fatal accidents in people in normal health—are counted as more valuable than life-years gained by those who are chronically ill or disabled—for instance, by averting fatal episodes in people with asthma, heart disease, or mental illness.”

It seems the PIPC assume the lower number of QALYs experienced by those who are sick equates with the value of lives to payers. Even more interestingly, Prof. Nord’s analysis says nothing about costs. While those who are older have fewer QALYs to potentially gain, they also incur fewer costs. This is why, contrary to the assertion of preventing accidents in healthy people, preventive measures may offer a similar value to treatments when both QALYS and costs are considered.

It is also why an ICER review showed that alemtuzumab is good value in individuals requiring second-line treatment for relapse-remitting multiple sclerosis (1.34 QALYs can be gained compared to the next best alternative and at a lower cost then comparators), while a policy of annual mammography screening of similarly aged (i.e., >40) healthy women is of poor economic value (0.036 QALYs can be gained compared to no screening at an additional cost of $5,500 for every woman). Mammography provides better value in older individuals. It is not unlike fracture prevention and a myriad of other interventions in healthy, asymptomatic people in this regard. Quite contrary to the assertion of these misinformed groups, many interventions represent increasingly better value in frail, disabled, and older patients. Relative risks create larger yields when baseline risks are high.

None of this is to say that QALYs (and incremental cost-effectiveness ratios) do not have problems. And the PIPC, at the very least, should be commended for trying to advance alternative metrics, something that very few critics have offered. Instead, the PIPC and like-minded organizations are likely trapped in a filter bubble. They know there are problems with QALYs, and they see expensive and rare disease treatments being valued harshly. So, ergo, blame the QALY. (Note to PIPC: it is because the drugs are expensive, relative to other life-saving things, not because of your concerns about the QALY.) They then see that others feel the same way, which means their concerns are likely justified. A critique of QALYs issued by the Pioneer Institute identifies many of these same arguments. One Twitterer, a disabled Massachusetts lawyer “alive because of Medicaid” has offered further instruction for the QALY-naive.

What to do about it?

As a friend recently told me, not everyone is concerned with the QALY. Some don’t like what they see as a rationing approach promoted by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) assessments. Some hate the QALY. Some hate both. Last year, Joshua T. Cohen, Dan Ollendorf, and Peter Neumann published their own blog entry on the effervescing criticism of ICER, even allowing the PIPC head to have a say about QALYs. They then tried to set the record straight with these thoughts:

While we applaud the call for novel measures and to work with patient and disability advocates to understand attributes important to them, there are three problems with PIPC’s position.

First, simply coming up with that list of key attributes does not address how society should allocate finite resources, or how to price a drug given individual or group preferences.

Second, the diminished weight QALYs assign to life with disability does not represent discrimination. Instead, diminished weight represents recognition that treatments mitigating disability confer value by restoring quality of life to levels typical among most of the population.

Finally, all value measures that inform allocation of finite resources trade off benefits important to some patients against benefits potentially important to others. PIPC itself notes that life years not weighted for disability (e.g., the equal value life-year gained, or evLYG, introduced by ICER for sensitivity analysis purposes) do not award value for improved quality of life. Indeed, any measure that does not “discriminate” against patients with disability cannot award treatments credit for improving their quality of life. Failing to award that credit would adversely affect this population by ruling out spending on such improvements.

Certainly a lot more can be said here.

But for now, I am more curious what others have to say…

Rita Faria’s journal round-up for 26th August 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.

Vaccine hesitancy and (fake) news: quasi‐experimental evidence from Italy. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 20th August 2019

Has fake news led to fewer children being vaccinated? At least in Italy, the answer seems to be yes.

It’s shocking to read that the WHO has included the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate as one of the 10 threats to global health today. And many of us are asking: why has this happened and what can we do to address it? Vincenzo Carrieri, Leonardo Madio and Francesco Principe help answer this first question. They looked at how fake news affects the take-up of vaccines, assuming that exposure to fake news is proxied by access to broadband and within a difference-in-differences framework. They found that a 10% increase in broadband coverage is associated with a 1.2-1.6% reduction in vaccination rates.

The differences-in-differences method hinges on a court ruling in 2012 that accepted that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Following the ruling, fake news about vaccines spread across the internet. In parallel, broadband coverage increased over time due to a government programme, but it varied by region, depending on the existing infrastructure and geographical conditions. Broadband coverage, by itself, cannot lead to lower vaccination rates. So it makes sense to assume that broadband coverage leads to greater exposure to fake news about vaccines, which in turn leads to lower vaccination rates.

On the other hand, it may be that greater broadband coverage and lower vaccination rates are both caused by something else. The authors wrote a good introduction to justify the model assumptions and show a few robustness checks. Had they had more space, I would have like to read a bit more about the uncertainties around the model assumptions. This is a fantastic paper and good food for thought on the consequences of fake news. Great read!

The cost-effectiveness of one-time birth cohort screening for hepatitis C as part of the National Health Service Health Check programme in England. Value in Health Published 19th August 2019

Jack Williams and colleagues looked at the cost-effectiveness of one-time birth cohort screening for hepatitis C. As hepatitis C is usually asymptomatic before reaching its more advanced stages, people may not be aware that they are infected. Therefore, they may not get tested and treated, even though treatment is effective and cost-effective.

At the level of the individual eligible for testing, the ICERs were between £8k-£31k/QALY, with lower ICERs for younger birth cohorts. The ICERs also depended on the transition probabilities for the progression of the disease, with lower ICERs if progression is faster. Extensive sensitivity and value of information analyses indicate that the key cost-effectiveness drivers are the transition probabilities, probabilities of referral and of treatment post-referral, and the quality of life benefits of being cured.

This is a great example of a good quality applied cost-effectiveness analysis. The model is well justified, the results are thoroughly tested, and the discussion is meticulous. Well done!

NICE, in confidence: an assessment of redaction to obscure confidential information in Single Technology Appraisals by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 27th June 2019

NICE walks a fine line between making decisions transparent and protecting confidential information. Confidential information includes commercially sensitive information (e.g. discounts to the price paid by the NHS) and academic-in-confidence information, such as unpublished results of clinical trials. The problem is that the redacted information may preclude readers from understanding NICE decisions.

Ash Bullement and colleagues reviewed NICE appraisals of technologies with an approved price discount. Their goal was to understand the extent of redactions and their consequences on the transparency of NICE decisions. Of the 171 NICE appraisals, 118 had an approved commercial arrangement and 110 had a simple price discount. The type of redacted information varied. Some did not present the ICER, others presented ICERs but not the components of the ICERs, and others did not even present the estimates of life expectancy from the model. Remarkably, the confidential discount could be back-calculated in seven NICE appraisals! The authors also looked at the academic-in-confidence redactions. They found that 68 out of 86 appraisals published before 2018 still had academic-in-confidence information redacted. This made me wonder if NICE has a process to review these redactions and disclose them once the information is in the public domain.

As Ash and colleagues rightly conclude, this review shows that there does not seem to be a consistent process for redaction and disclosure. This is a compelling paper on the practicalities of the NICE process, and with useful reflections for HTA agencies around the world. The message for NICE is that it may be time to review the process to handle sensitive information.

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