Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 11th June 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.

End-of-life healthcare expenditure: testing economic explanations using a discrete choice experiment. Journal of Health Economics Published 7th June 2018

People incur a lot of health care costs at the end of life, despite the fact that – by definition – they aren’t going to get much value from it (so long as we’re using QALYs, anyway). In a 2007 paper, Gary Becker and colleagues put forward a theory for the high value of life and high expenditure on health care at the end of life. This article sets out to test a set of hypotheses derived from this theory, namely: i) higher willingness-to-pay (WTP) for health care with proximity to death, ii) higher WTP with greater chance of survival, iii) societal WTP exceeds individual WTP due to altruism, and iv) societal WTP may exceed individual WTP due to an aversion to restricting access to new end-of-life care. A further set of hypotheses relating to the ‘pain of risk-bearing’ is also tested. The authors conducted an online discrete choice experiment (DCE) with 1,529 Swiss residents, which asked respondents to suppose that they had terminal cancer and was designed to elicit WTP for a life-prolonging novel cancer drug. Attributes in the DCE included survival, quality of life, and ‘hope’ (chance of being cured). Individual WTP – using out-of-pocket costs – and societal WTP – based on social health insurance – were both estimated. The overall finding is that the hypotheses are on the whole true, at least in part. But the fact is that different people have different preferences – the authors note that “preferences with regard to end-of-life treatment are very heterogeneous”. The findings provide evidence to explain the prevailing high level of expenditure in end of life (cancer) care. But the questions remain of what we can or should do about it, if anything.

Valuation of preference-based measures: can existing preference data be used to generate better estimates? Health and Quality of Life Outcomes [PubMed] Published 5th June 2018

The EuroQol website lists EQ-5D-3L valuation studies for 27 countries. As the EQ-5D-5L comes into use, we’re going to see a lot of new valuation studies in the pipeline. But what if we could use data from one country’s valuation to inform another’s? The idea is that a valuation study in one country may be able to ‘borrow strength’ from another country’s valuation data. The author of this article has developed a Bayesian non-parametric model to achieve this and has previously applied it to UK and US EQ-5D valuations. But what about situations in which few data are available in the country of interest, and where the country’s cultural characteristics are substantially different. This study reports on an analysis to generate an SF-6D value set for Hong Kong, firstly using the Hong Kong values only, and secondly using the UK value set as a prior. As expected, the model which uses the UK data provided better predictions. And some of the differences in the valuation of health states are quite substantial (i.e. more than 0.1). Clearly, this could be a useful methodology, especially for small countries. But more research is needed into the implications of adopting the approach more widely.

Can a smoking ban save your heart? Health Economics [PubMed] Published 4th June 2018

Here we have another Swiss study, relating to the country’s public-place smoking bans. Exposure to tobacco smoke can have an acute and rapid impact on health to the extent that we would expect an immediate reduction in the risk of acute myocardial infarction (AMI) if a smoking ban reduces the number of people exposed. Studies have already looked at this effect, and found it to be large, but mostly with simple pre-/post- designs that don’t consider important confounding factors or prevailing trends. This study tests the hypothesis in a quasi-experimental setting, taking advantage of the fact that the 26 Swiss cantons implemented smoking bans at different times between 2007 and 2010. The authors analyse individual-level data from Swiss hospitals, estimating the impact of the smoking ban on AMI incidence, with area and time fixed effects, area-specific time trends, and unemployment. The findings show a large and robust effect of the smoking ban(s) for men, with a reduction in AMI incidence of about 11%. For women, the effect is weaker, with an average reduction of around 2%. The evidence also shows that men in low-education regions experienced the greatest benefit. What makes this an especially nice paper is that the authors bring in other data sources to help explain their findings. Panel survey data are used to demonstrate that non-smokers are likely to be the group benefitting most from smoking bans and that people working in public places and people with less education are most exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. These findings might not be generalisable to other settings. Other countries implemented more gradual policy changes and Switzerland had a particularly high baseline smoking rate. But the findings suggest that smoking bans are associated with population health benefits (and the associated cost savings) and could also help tackle health inequalities.


Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 15th January 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.

Cost-effectiveness of publicly funded treatment of opioid use disorder in California. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd January 2018

Deaths from opiate overdose have soared in the United States in recent years. In 2016, 64,000 people died this way, up from 16,000 in 2010 and 4,000 in 1999. The causes of public health crises like this are multifaceted, but we can identify two key issues that have contributed more than any other. Firstly, medical practitioners have been prescribing opiates irresponsibly for years. For the last ten years, well over 200,000,000 opiate prescriptions were issued per year in the US – enough for seven in every ten people. Once prescribed, opiate use is often not well managed. Prescriptions can be stopped abruptly, for example, leaving people with unexpected withdrawal syndromes and rebound pain. It is estimated that 75% of heroin users in the US began by using legal, prescription opiates. Secondly, drug suppliers have started cutting heroin with its far stronger but cheaper cousin, fentanyl. Given fentanyl’s strength, only a tiny amount is required to achieve the same effects as heroin, but the lack of pharmaceutical knowledge and equipment means it is often not measured or mixed appropriately into what is sold as ‘heroin’. There are two clear routes to alleviating the epidemic of opiate overdose: prevention, by ensuring responsible medical use of opiates, and ‘cure’, either by ensuring the quality and strength of heroin, or providing a means to stop opiate use. The former ‘cure’ is politically infeasible so it falls on the latter to help those already habitually using opiates. However, the availability of opiate treatment programs, such as opiate agonist treatment (OAT), is lacklustre in the US. OAT provides non-narcotic opiates, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to prevent withdrawal syndromes in users, from which they can slowly be weaned. This article looks at the cost-effectiveness of providing OAT for all persons seeking treatment for opiate use in California for an unlimited period versus standard care, which only provides OAT to those who have failed supervised withdrawal twice, and only for 21 days. The paper adopts a previously developed semi-Markov cohort model that includes states for treatment, relapse, incarceration, and abstinence. Transition probabilities for the new OAT treatment were determined from treatment data for current OAT patients (as far as I understand it). Although this does raise the question about the generalisability of this population to the whole population of opiate users – given the need to have already been through two supervised withdrawals, this population may have a greater motivation to quit, for example. In any case, the article estimates that the OAT program would be cost-saving, through reductions in crime and incarceration, and improve population health, by reducing the risk of death. Taken at face value these results seem highly plausible. But, as we’ve discussed before, drug policy rarely seems to be evidence-based.

The impact of aid on health outcomes in Uganda. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 22nd December 2017

Examining the response of population health outcomes to changes in health care expenditure has been the subject of a large and growing number of studies. One reason is to estimate a supply-side cost-effectiveness threshold: the health returns the health service achieves in response to budget expansions or contractions. Similarly, we might want to know the returns to particular types of health care expenditure. For example, there remains a debate about the effectiveness of aid spending in low and middle-income country (LMIC) settings. Aid spending may fail to be effective for reasons such as resource leakage, failure to target the right population, poor design and implementation, and crowding out of other public sector investment. Looking at these questions at an aggregate level can be tricky; the link between expenditure or expenditure decisions and health outcomes is long and causality flows in multiple directions. Effects are likely to therefore be small and noisy and require strong theoretical foundations to interpret. This article takes a different, and innovative, approach to looking at this question. In essence, the analysis boils down to a longitudinal comparison of those who live near large, aid funded health projects with those who don’t. The expectation is that the benefit of any aid spending will be felt most acutely by those who live nearest to actual health care facilities that come about as a result of it. Indeed, this is shown by the results – proximity to an aid project reduced disease prevalence and work days lost to ill health with greater effects observed closer to the project. However, one way of considering the ‘usefulness’ of this evidence is how it can be used to improve policymaking. One way is in understanding the returns to investment or over what area these projects have an impact. The latter is covered in the paper to some extent, but the former is hard to infer. A useful next step may be to try to quantify what kind of benefit aid dollars produce and its heterogeneity thereof.

The impact of social expenditure on health inequalities in Europe. Social Science & Medicine Published 11th January 2018

Let us consider for a moment how we might explore empirically whether social expenditure (e.g. unemployment support, child support, housing support, etc) affects health inequalities. First, we establish a measure of health inequality. We need a proxy measure of health – this study uses self-rated health and self-rated difficulty in daily living – and then compare these outcomes along some relevant measure of socioeconomic status (SES) – in this study they use level of education and a compound measure of occupation, income, and education (the ISEI). So far, so good. Data on levels of social expenditure are available in Europe and are used here, but oddly these data are converted to a percentage of GDP. The trouble with doing this is that this variable can change if social expenditure changes or if GDP changes. During the financial crisis, for example, social expenditure shot up as a proportion of GDP, which likely had very different effects on health and inequality than when social expenditure increased as a proportion of GDP due to a policy change under the Labour government. This variable also likely has little relationship to the level of support received per eligible person. Anyway, at the crudest level, we can then consider how the relationship between SES and health is affected by social spending. A more nuanced approach might consider who the recipients of social expenditure are and how they stand on our measure of SES, but I digress. In the article, the baseline category for education is those with only primary education or less, which seems like an odd category to compare to since in Europe I would imagine this is a very small proportion of people given compulsory schooling ages unless, of course, they are children. But including children in the sample would be an odd choice here since they don’t personally receive social assistance and are difficult to compare to adults. However, there are no descriptive statistics in the paper so we don’t know and no comparisons are made between other groups. Indeed, the estimates of the intercepts in the models are very noisy and variable for no obvious reason other than perhaps the reference group is very small. Despite the problems outlined so far though, there is a potentially more serious one. The article uses a logistic regression model, which is perfectly justifiable given the binary or ordinal nature of the outcomes. However, the authors justify the conclusion that “Results show that health inequalities measured by education are lower in countries where social expenditure is higher” by demonstrating that the odds ratio for reporting a poor health outcome in the groups with greater than primary education, compared to primary education or less, is smaller in magnitude when social expenditure as a proportion of GDP is higher. But the conclusion does not follow from the premise. It is entirely possible for these odds ratios to change without any change in the variance of the underlying distribution of health, the relative ordering of people, or the absolute difference in health between categories, simply by shifting the whole distribution up or down. For example, if the proportions of people in two groups reporting a negative outcome are 0.3 and 0.4, which then change to 0.2 and 0.3 respectively, then the odds ratio comparing the two groups changes from 0.64 to 0.58. The difference between them remains 0.1. No calculations are made regarding absolute effects in the paper though. GDP is also shown to have a positive effect on health outcomes. All that might have been shown is that the relative difference in health outcomes between those with primary education or less and others changes as GDP changes because everyone is getting healthier. The question of the article is interesting, it’s a shame about the execution.



Paul Mitchell’s journal round-up for 6th November 2017

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 longitudinal study to assess the frequency and cost of antivascular endothelial therapy, and inequalities in access, in England between 2005 and 2015. BMJ Open [PubMed] Published 22nd October 2017

I am breaking one of my unwritten rules in a journal paper round-up by talking about colleagues’ work, but I feel it is too important not to provide a summary for a number of reasons. The study highlights the problems faced by regional healthcare purchasers in England when implementing national guideline recommendations on the cost-effectiveness of new treatments. The paper focuses on anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) medicines in particular, with two drugs, ranibizumab and aflibercept, offered to patients with a range of eye conditions, costing £550-800 per injection. Another drug, bevacizumab, that is closely related to ranibizumab and performs similarly in trials, could be provided at a fraction of the cost (£50-100 per injection), but it is currently unlicensed for eye conditions in the UK. This study investigates how the regional areas in England have coped with trying to provide the recommended drugs using administrative data from Hospital Episode Statistics in England between 2005-2015 by tracking their use since they have been recommended for a number of different eye conditions over the past decade. In 2014/15 the cost of these two new drugs for treating eye conditions alone was estimated at £447 million nationally. The distribution of where these drugs are provided is not equal, varying widely across regions after controlling for socio-demographics, suggesting an inequality of access associated with the introduction of these high-cost drugs over the past decade at a time of relatively low growth in national health spending. Although there are limitations associated with using data not intended for research purposes, the study shows how the most can be made from data routinely collected for non-research purposes. On a public policy level, it raises questions over the provision of such high-cost drugs, for which the authors state the NHS are currently paying more for than US insurers. Although it is important to be careful when comparing to unlicensed drugs, the authors point to clear evidence in the paper as to why their comparison is a reasonable one in this scenario, with a large opportunity cost associated with not including this option in national guidelines. If national recommendations continue to insist that such drugs be provided, clearer guidance is also required on how to disinvest from existing services at a regional level to reduce further examples of inequality in access in the future.

In search of a common currency: a comparison of seven EQ-5D-5L value sets. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 24th October 2017

For those of us out there who like a good valuation study, you will need to set yourself aside a good piece of time to work your way through this one. The new EQ-5D-5L measure of health status, with a primary purpose of generating quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) for economic evaluations, is now starting to have valuation studies emerging from different countries, whereby the relative importance of each of the measure dimensions and levels are quantified based on general population preferences. This study offers the first comparison of value sets across seven countries: 3 Western European (England, Netherlands, Spain), 1 North American (Canada), 1 South American (Uruguay), and two East Asian (Japan and South Korea). The authors in this paper aim to describe methodological differences between the seven value sets, compare the relative importance of dimensions, level decrements and scale length (i.e. quality/quantity trade-offs for QALYs), as well as developing a common (Western) currency across four of the value sets. In brief summary, there does appear to be similar trends across the three Western European countries: level decrements from levels 3 to 4 have the largest value, followed by levels 1 to 2. There is also a pattern in these three countries’ dimensions, whereby the two “symptom” dimensions (i.e. pain/discomfort, anxiety/depression) have equal importance to the other three “functioning” dimensions (i.e. mobility, self-care and usual activities). There are also clear differences with the other four value sets. Canada, although it also has the highest level decrements between levels 3 and 4 (49%), unusually has equal decrements for the remainder (17% x 3). For the other three countries, greater weight is attached to the three functioning dimensions relative to the two symptom dimensions. Although South Korea also has the greatest level decrements between level 3 and 4, it was greatest between level 4 and level 5 in Uruguay and levels 1 and 2 in Japan. Although the authors give a number of plausible reasons as to why these differences may occur, less justification is given in the choice of the four value sets they offer as a common currency, beyond the need to have a value set for countries that do not have one already. The most in-common value sets were the three Western European countries, so a Western European value set may have been more appropriate if the criterion was to have comparable values across countries. If the aim was really for a more international common currency, there are issues with the exclusion of non-Western countries’ value sets from their common currency version. Surely differences across cultures should be reflected in a common currency if they are apparent in different cultures and settings. A common currency should also have a better spread of regions geographically, with no country from Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia represented in this study, as well as no lower- and middle-income countries. Though this final criticism is out of the control of the authors based on current data availability.

Quantifying the relationship between capability and health in older people: can’t map, won’t map. Medical Decision Making [PubMed] Published 23rd October 2017

The EQ-5D is one of many ways quality of life can be measured within economic evaluations. A more recent way based on Amartya Sen’s capability approach has attempted to develop outcome measures that move beyond health-related aspects of quality of life captured by EQ-5D and similar measures used in the generation of QALYs. This study examines the relationship between the EQ-5D and the ICECAP-O capability measure in three different patient populations included in the Medical Crises in Older People programme in England. The authors propose a reasonable hypothesis that health could be considered a conversion factor for a person’s broader capability set, and so it is plausible to test how well the EQ-5D-3L dimension values and overall score can map onto the ICECAP-O overall score. Through numerous regressions performed, the strongest relationship between the two measures in this sample was an R-squared of 0.35. Interestingly, the dimensions on the EQ-5D that had a significant relationship with the ICECAP-O score were a mix of dimensions with a focus on functioning (i.e. self-care, usual activities) and symptoms (anxiety/depression), so overall capability on ICECAP-O appears to be related, at least to a small degree, to both health components of EQ-5D discussed in this round-up’s previous paper. The authors suggest it provides further evidence of the complementary data provided by EQ-5D and ICECAP-O, but the causal relationship, as the authors suggest, between both measures remains under-researched. Longitudinal data analysis would provide a more definitive answer to the question of how much interaction there is between these two measures and their dimensions as health and capability changes over time in response to different treatments and care provision.