Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 27th 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.

Ethically acceptable compensation for living donations of organs, tissues, and cells: an unexploited potential? Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 25th August 2018

Around the world, there are shortages of organs for transplantation. In economics, the debate around the need to increase organ donation can be frustratingly ignorant of ethical and distributional concerns. So it’s refreshing to see this article attempting to square concerns about efficiency and equity. The authors do so by using a ‘spheres of justice’ framework. This is the idea that different social goods should be distributed according to different principles. So, while we might be happy for brocolli and iPhones to be distributed on the basis of free exchange, we might want health to be distributed on the basis of need. The argument can be extended to state that – for a just situation to prevail – certain exchanges between these spheres of justice (e.g. health for iPhones) should never take place. This idea might explain why – as the authors demonstrate with a review of European countries – policy tends not to allow monetary compensation for organ donation.

The paper cleverly sets out to taxonomise monetary and non-monetary reimbursement and compensation with reference to individuals’ incentives and the spheres of justice principles. From this, the authors reach two key conclusions. Firstly, that (monetary) reimbursement of donors’ expenses (e.g. travel costs or lost earnings) is ethically sound as this does not constitute an incentive to donate but rather removes existing disincentives. Secondly, that non-monetary compensation could be deemed ethical.

Three possible forms of non-monetary compensation are discussed: i) prioritisation, ii) free access, and iii) non-health care-related benefits. The first could involve being given priority for receiving organs, or it could extend to the jumping of other health care waiting lists. I think this is more problematic than the authors let on because it asserts that health care should – at least in part – be distributed according to desert rather than need. The second option – free access – could mean access to health care that people would otherwise have to pay for. The third option could involve access to other social goods such as education or housing.

This is an interesting article and an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it provides a complete solution. Maybe I’m just too much of a Marxist, but I think that this – as all other proposals – fails to distribute from each according to ability. That is, we’d still expect non-monetary compensation to incentivise poorer (and on average less healthy) people to donate organs, thus exacerbating health inequality. This is because i) poorer people are more likely to need the non-monetary benefits and ii) we live in a capitalist society in which there is almost nothing that money can’t by and which is strictly non-monetary. Show me a proposal that increases donation rates from those who can most afford to donate them (i.e. the rich and healthy).

Selecting bolt-on dimensions for the EQ-5D: examining their contribution to health-related quality of life. Value in Health Published 18th August 2018

Measures such as the EQ-5D are used to describe health-related quality of life as completely and generically as possible. But there is a trade-off between completeness and the length of the questionnaire. Necessarily, there are parts of the evaluative space that measures will not capture because they are a simplification. If the bit they’re missing is important to your patient group, that’s a problem. You might fancy a bolt-on. But how do we decide which areas of the evaluative space should be more completely included in the measure? Which bolt-ons should be used? This paper seeks to provide means of answering these questions.

The article builds on an earlier piece of work that was included in an earlier journal round-up. In the previous paper, the authors used factor analysis to identify candidate bolt-ons. The goal of this paper is to outline an approach for specifying which of these candidates ought to be used. Using data from the Multi-Instrument Comparison study, the authors fit linear regressions to see how well 37 candidate bolt-on items explain differences in health-related quality of life. The 37 items correspond to six different domains: energy/vitality, satisfaction, relationships, hearing, vision, and speech. In a second test, the authors explored whether the bolt-on candidates could explain differences in health-related quality of life associated with six chronic conditions. Health-related quality of life is defined according to a visual analogue scale, which notably does not correspond to that used in the EQ-5D but rather uses a broader measure of physical, mental, and social health.

The results suggest that items related to energy/vitality, relationships, and satisfaction explained a significant part of health-related quality of life on top of the existing EQ-5D dimensions. The implication is that these could be good candidates for bolt-ons. The analysis of the different conditions was less clear.

For me, there’s a fundamental problem with this study. It moves the goals posts. Bolt-ons are about improving the extent to which a measure can more accurately represent the evaluative space that it is designed to characterise. In this study, the authors use a broader definition of health-related quality of life that – as far as I can tell – the EQ-5D is not designed to capture. We’re not dealing with bolt-ons, we’re dealing with extensions to facilitate expansions to the evaluative space. Nevertheless, the method could prove useful if combined with a more thorough consideration of the evaluative space.

Sources of health financing and health outcomes: a panel data analysis. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 15th August 2018

There is a growing body of research looking at the impact that health (care) spending has on health outcomes. Usually, these studies don’t explicitly look at who is doing the spending. In this study, the author distinguishes between public and private spending and attempts to identify which type of spending (if either) results in greater health improvements.

The author uses data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators for 1995-2014. Life expectancy at birth is adopted as the primary health outcome and the key expenditure variables are health expenditure as a share of GDP and private health expenditure as a share of total health expenditure. Controlling for a variety of other variables, including some determinants of health such as income and access to an improved water source, a triple difference analysis is described. The triple difference estimator corresponds to the difference in health outcomes arising from i) differences in the private expenditure level, given ii) differences in total expenditure, over iii) time.

The key finding from the study is that, on average, private expenditure is more effective in increasing life expectancy at birth than public expenditure. The author also looks at government effectiveness, which proves crucial. The finding in favour of private expenditure entirely disappears when only countries with effective government are considered. There is some evidence that public expenditure is more effective in these countries, and this is something that future research should investigate further. For countries with ineffective governments, the implication is that policy should be directed towards increasing overall health care expenditure by increasing private expenditure.

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Meeting round-up: Health Economists’ Study Group (HESG) Winter 2018

Last week’s biannual intellectual knees-up for UK health economists took place at City, University of London. We’ve written before about HESG, but if you need a reminder of the format you can read Lucy Abel’s blog post on the subject. This was the first HESG I’ve been to in a while that took place in an actual university building.

The conference kicked off for me with my colleague Grace Hampson‘s first ever HESG discussion. It was an excellent discussion of Toby Watt‘s paper on the impact of price promotions for cola, in terms of quantities purchased (they increase) and – by extension – sugar consumption. It was a nice paper with a clear theoretical framework and empirical strategy, which generated a busy discussion. Nutrition is a subject that I haven’t seen represented much at past HESG meetings, but there were several on the schedule this time around with other papers by Jonathan James and Ben Gershlick. I expect it’s something we’ll see becoming more prevalent as policymaking becomes more insistent.

The second and third sessions I attended were on the relationship between health and social care, which is a pressing matter in the UK, particular with regard to achieving integrated care. Ben Zaranko‘s paper considered substitution effects arising from changes in the relative budgets of health and social care. Jonathan Stokes and colleagues attempted to identify whether the Better Care Fund has achieved its goal of reducing secondary care use. That paper got a blazing discussion from Andrew Street that triggered an insightful discussion in the room.

A recurring theme in many sessions was the challenge of communicating with local decision-makers, and the apparent difficulty in working without a reference case to fall back on (such as that of NICE). This is something that I have heard regularly discussed at least since the Winter 2016 meeting in Manchester. At City, this was most clearly discussed in Emma Frew‘s paper describing the researchers’ experiences working with local government. Qualitative research has clearly broken through at HESG, including Emma’s paper and a study by Hareth Al-Janabi on the subject of treatment spillovers on family carers.

I also saw a few papers that related primarily to matters of research conduct and publishing. Charitini Stavropoulou‘s paper explored whether highly-cited researchers are more likely to receive public funding, while the paper I chaired by Anum Shaikh explored the potential for recycling cost-effectiveness models. The latter was a joy for me, with much discussion of model registries!

There were plenty of papers that satisfied my own particular research interests. Right up my research street was Mauro Laudicella‘s paper, which used real-world data to assess the cost savings associated with redirecting cancer diagnoses to GP referral rather than emergency presentation. I wasn’t quite as optimistic about the potential savings, with the standard worries about lead time bias and selection effects. But it was a great paper nonetheless. Also using real-world evidence was Ewan Gray‘s study, which supported the provision of adjuvant chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer but delivered some perplexing findings about patient-GP decision-making. Ewan’s paper explored technical methodological challenges, though the prize for the most intellectually challenging paper undoubtedly goes to Manuel Gomes, who continued his crusade to make health economists better at dealing with missing data – this time for the case of quality of life data. Milad Karimi‘s paper asked whether preferences over health states are informed. This is the kind of work I enjoy thinking about – whether measures like the EQ-5D capture what really matters and how we might do better.

As usual, many delegates worked hard and played hard. I took a beating from the schedule at this HESG, with my discussion taking place during the first session after the conference dinner (where we walked in the footsteps of the Spice Girls) and my chairing responsibilities falling on the last session of the last day. But in both cases, the audience was impressive.

I’ll leave the final thought for the blog post with Peter Smith’s plenary, which considered the role of health economists in a post-truth world. Happily, for me, Peter’s ideas chimed with my own view that we ought to be taking our message to the man on the Clapham omnibus and supporting public debate. Perhaps our focus on (national) policymakers is too strong. If not explicit, this was a theme that could be seen throughout the meeting, whether it be around broader engagement with stakeholders, recognising local decision-making processes, or harnessing the value of storytelling through qualitative research. HESG members are STRETCHing the truth.

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Access to medicines and medical technologies for the global poor

The UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines recently published its long awaited report Promoting innovation and access to health technologies. The report explores and proposes some solutions to the well recognised problem of under-investment in research and development for new treatments for diseases that afflict the global poor. In the pharmaceutical market, innovation is directed to the areas that generate the highest returns. These market incentives explain why no new anti-tuberculosis drug has been developed since the 1960s. As a result, some of the WHO’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as to eradicate TB and malaria by 2030, look fanciful. To increase investment in research and development new incentive structures would need to be put in place.

Interventions already take place in the market to encourage R&D. Patents granting temporary monopolies are already widely used to allow companies to recoup the high costs of drug development. However, reported R&D costs, as we have previously discussed, are likely to be inflated to justify longer patent lengths. The UN report identifies other methods of ‘evergreening’ such as filing multiple patents for small variations of various drugs or patents for multiple indications of the same drug. The World Trade Organisation enforces strict US-style patent rights around the world, but it permits significant flexibility for granting patents. The report recommends punitive action against companies that pressure countries to use these flexibilities in their favour.

Relying on market incentives also leads to other adverse outcomes. The academic medical literature has become distorted. Industry funded research is more likely to find favourable outcomes. In some cases significant harms are not reported as the Vioxx scandal demonstrated. We have also previously reported on how policy uncertainty reduces pharmaceutical R&D. Thus, state involvement in the industry seems to be warranted.

Joseph Stiglitz proposed an international multi-billion dollar fund to reward drug innovations that did the most to improve public health. Other solutions proposed in the UN report are to prohibit patents on innovations resulting from publicly funded research, forcing private companies in the medical sector to disclose the true costs of R&D, and the public financing of biomedical R&D through transaction taxes and other mechanisms.

Some may worry that such restrictions and market distortions may significantly reduce private spending on medical R&D. But it should be noted that only around 14% of the industry’s budget goes towards R&D; a greater share is spent on marketing. However, as an editorial in the Lancet notes, these recommendations would require endorsement and adoption quickly as new legislation such as the trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) is gaining momentum, which will exacerbate the situation further.

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