How important is healthcare for population health?

How important is a population’s access to healthcare as a determinant of population health? I have heard the claim that “as little as 10% of a population’s health is linked to access to healthcare”, or some variant of it, in many places. Some examples include the Health Foundation, the AHRQ, the King’s Fund, the WHO, and determinantsofhealth.org. This claim is appealing: it feels counter-intuitive and it brings to the fore questions of public health and health-related behaviour. But it’s not clear what it means.

I can think of two possible interpretations. One, 10% of the variation in population health outcomes is explained by variation in healthcare access. Or two, access to healthcare leads to a 10% change in population health outcomes compared to no access to healthcare. Both of these claims would be very hard to evaluate empirically. Within many countries, particularly the highest income countries, there is little variation in access to healthcare relative to possible levels of access across the world. Inter-country comparisons would provide a greater range of variation to compare to population outcomes. But even the most sophisticated statistical analysis will struggle to separate out the effects of other economic determinants of health.

It would also be difficult to make sense of any study that purported to estimate the effect of adding or removing healthcare beyond any within-country variation. The labour and capital resource needs of the most sophisticated hospitals are too great for the poorest settings, and it is unlikely that the wealthiest democratic countries could end up with the level of healthcare the world’s poorest face.

But what is the evidence for the claim of 10%? There are a handful of key citations, all of which were summarised at the time in a widely cited article in Health Affairs in 2014. For each of the two ways we could think about the contribution of healthcare above, we would need to look at estimates of the probability of health conditional on different levels of healthcare, Pr(health|healthcare). Each of the references for the 10% figure above in fact provides evidence for the proportion of deaths associated with ‘inadequate’ healthcare, or to put in another way, the probability of having received ‘inadequate’ care given death, Pr(healthcare|health). This is known as transposing the conditional: we have got our conditional probability the wrong way round. Even if we accept mortality rates as an acceptable proxy for population health, the two probabilities are not equal to one another.

Interpretation of this evidence is also complex. Smoking tobacco, for example, would be considered a behavioural determinant of health and deaths caused by it would be attributed to a behavioural cause rather than healthcare. But survival rates for lung cancers have improved dramatically over the last few decades due to improvements in healthcare. While it would be foolish to attribute a death in the past to a lack of access to treatments which had not been invented, contemporary lung cancer deaths in low income settings may well have been prevented by access to better healthcare. Thus using cause-of-death statistics to estimate the contributions of different factors to population health only typically picks up those deaths resulting from medical error or negligence. They are a wholly unreliable guide to the role of healthcare in determining population health.

A study published recently in The Lancet, timed to coincide with a commission on healthcare quality, adopted a different approach. The study aimed to estimate the annual number of deaths worldwide due to a lack of access to high-quality care. To do this they compared the mortality rates of conditions amenable to healthcare intervention around the world with those in the wealthiest nations. Any differences were attributed to either non-utilisation of or lack of access to high-quality care. 15.6 million ‘excess deaths’ were estimated. However, to attribute to these deaths a cause of inadequate healthcare access, one would need to conceive of a counter-factual world in which everyone was treated in the best healthcare systems. This is surely implausible in the extreme. A comparable question might be to ask how many people around the world are dying because their incomes are not as high as those of the top 10% of Americans.

On the normative question, there is little disagreement with the goal of achieving universal health coverage and improving population health. But these dramatic, eye-catching, or counter-intuitive figures do little to support achieving these ends: they can distort policy priorities and create unattainable goals and expectations. Health systems are not built overnight; an incremental approach is needed to ensure sustainability and affordability. Evidence to support this is where great strides are being made both methodologically and empirically, but it is not nearly as exciting as claiming healthcare isn’t very important or that millions of people are dying every year due to poor healthcare access. Healthcare systems are an integral and important part of overall population health; assigning a number to this importance is not.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 16th April 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.

The impact of NHS expenditure on health outcomes in England: alternative approaches to identification in all‐cause and disease specific models of mortality. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 2nd April 2018

Studies looking at the relationship between health care expenditure and patient outcomes have exploded in popularity. A recent systematic review identified 65 studies by 2014 on the topic – and recent experience from these journal round-ups suggests this number has increased significantly since then. The relationship between national spending and health outcomes is important to inform policy and health care budgets, not least through the specification of a cost-effectiveness threshold. Karl Claxton and colleagues released a big study looking at all the programmes of care in the NHS in 2015 purporting to estimate exactly this. I wrote at the time that: (i) these estimates are only truly an opportunity cost if the health service is allocatively efficient, which it isn’t; and (ii) their statistical identification method, in which they used a range of socio-economic variables as instruments for expenditure, was flawed as the instruments were neither strong determinants of expenditure nor (conditionally) independent of population health. I also noted that their tests would be unlikely to be any good to detect this problem. In response to the first, Tony O’Hagan commented to say that that they did not assume NHS efficiency, nor even that it was assumed that the NHS is trying to maximise health. This may well have been the case, but I would still, perhaps pedantically, argue then that this is therefore not an opportunity cost. For the question of instrumental variables, an alternative method was proposed by Martyn Andrews and co-authors, using information that feeds into the budget allocation formula as instruments for expenditure. In this new article, Claxton, Lomas, and Martin adopt Andrews’s approach and apply it across four key programs of care in the NHS to try to derive cost-per-QALY thresholds. First off, many of my original criticisms I would also apply to this paper, to which I’d also add one: (Statistical significance being used inappropriately complaint alert!!!) The authors use what seems to be some form of stepwise regression by including and excluding regressors on the basis of statistical significance – this is a big no-no and just introduces large biases (see this article for a list of reasons why). Beyond that, the instruments issue – I think – is still a problem, as it’s hard to justify, for example, an input price index (which translates to larger budgets) as an instrument here. It is certainly correlated with higher expenditure – inputs are more expensive in higher price areas after all – but this instrument won’t be correlated with greater inputs for this same reason. Thus, it’s the ‘wrong kind’ of correlation for this study. Needless to say, perhaps I am letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Is this evidence strong enough to warrant a change in a cost-effectiveness threshold? My inclination would be that it is not, but that is not to deny it’s relevance to the debate.

Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. The Lancet Published 14th April 2018

“Moderate drinkers live longer” is the adage of the casual drinker as if to justify a hedonistic pursuit as purely pragmatic. But where does this idea come from? Studies that have compared risk of cardiovascular disease to level of alcohol consumption have shown that disease risk is lower in those that drink moderately compared to those that don’t drink. But correlation does not imply causation – non-drinkers might differ from those that drink. They may be abstinent after experiencing health issues related to alcohol, or be otherwise advised to not drink to protect their health. If we truly believed moderate alcohol consumption was better for your health than no alcohol consumption we’d advise people who don’t drink to drink. Moreover, if this relationship were true then there would be an ‘optimal’ level of consumption where any protective effect were maximised before being outweighed by the adverse effects. This new study pools data from three large consortia each containing data from multiple studies or centres on individual alcohol consumption, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality to look at these outcomes among drinkers, excluding non-drinkers for the aforementioned reasons. Reading the methods section, it’s not wholly clear, if replicability were the standard, what was done. I believe that for each different database a hazard ratio or odds ratio for the risk of CVD or mortality for eight groups of alcohol consumption was estimated, these ratios were then subsequently pooled in a random-effects meta-analysis. However, it’s not clear to me why you would need to do this in two steps when you could just estimate a hierarchical model that achieves the same thing while also propagating any uncertainty through all the levels. Anyway, a polynomial was then fitted through the pooled ratios – again, why not just do this in the main stage and estimate some kind of hierarchical semi-parametric model instead of a three-stage model to get the curve of interest? I don’t know. The key finding is that risk generally increases above around 100g/week alcohol (around 5-6 UK glasses of wine per week), below which it is fairly flat (although whether it is different to non-drinkers we don’t know). However, the picture the article paints is complicated, risk of stroke and heart failure go up with increased alcohol consumption, but myocardial infarction goes down. This would suggest some kind of competing risk: the mechanism by which alcohol works increases your overall risk of CVD and your proportional risk of non-myocardial infarction CVD given CVD.

Family ruptures, stress, and the mental health of the next generation [comment] [reply]. American Economic Review [RePEc] Published April 2018

I’m not sure I will write out the full blurb again about studies of in utero exposure to difficult or stressful conditions and later life outcomes. There are a lot of them and they continue to make the top journals. Admittedly, I continue to cover them in these round-ups – so much so that we could write a literature review on the topic on the basis of the content of this blog. Needless to say, exposure in the womb to stressors likely increases the risk of low birth weight birth, neonatal and childhood disease, poor educational outcomes, and worse labour market outcomes. So what does this new study (and the comments) contribute? Firstly, it uses a new type of stressor – maternal stress caused by a death in the family and apparently this has a dose-response as stronger ties to the deceased are more stressful, and secondly, it looks at mental health outcomes of the child, which are less common in these sorts of studies. The identification strategy compares the effect of the death on infants who are in the womb to those infants who experience it shortly after birth. Herein lies the interesting discussion raised in the above linked comment and reply papers: in this paper the sample contains all births up to one year post birth and to be in the ‘treatment’ group the death had to have occurred between conception and the expected date of birth, so those babies born preterm were less likely to end up in the control group than those born after the expected date. This spurious correlation could potentially lead to bias. In the authors’ reply, they re-estimate their models by redefining the control group on the basis of expected date of birth rather than actual. They find that their estimates for the effect of their stressor on physical outcomes, like low birth weight, are much smaller in magnitude, and I’m not sure they’re clinically significant. For mental health outcomes, again the estimates are qualitatively small in magnitude, but remain similar to the original paper but this choice phrase pops up (Statistical significance being used inappropriately complaint alert!!!): “We cannot reject the null hypothesis that the mental health coefficients presented in panel C of Table 3 are statistically the same as the corresponding coefficients in our original paper.” Statistically the same! I can see they’re different! Anyway, given all the other evidence on the topic I don’t need to explain the results in detail – the methods discussion is far more interesting.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th March 2016

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.

Affordability and availability of off-patent drugs in the United States—the case for importing from abroad: observational study. BMJ [PubMedPublished 19th March 2018

Martin Shkreli has been frequently called “the most hated man in America“. Aside from defrauding investors and being the envied owner of a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, the company of which he was chief executive, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased the sole US approved manufacturer of a toxoplasmosis treatment, pyrimethamine, and hiked its price from $13 to $750 per tablet. Price gouging is nothing new in the pharmaceutical sector. An episode of the recent Netflix documentary series Dirty Money covers the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals whose entire business was structured around the purchase of drug companies, laying off any research staff, and then hiking the price as high as the market could bear (even if this included running their own pharmacies to buy products at these inflated prices). The structure of the US drug market often allows the formation of monopolies on off-patent, or generic, medication, since the process for regulatory approval for a new manufacturer can be long and expensive. There have been proposals though that this could be ameliorated by allowing manufacturers approved by other trusted agencies (such as the European Medicines Agencies) to sell generics in the US while the FDA approvals process takes place. The aim of this paper is to determine how many more manufacturers this would allow into the US drugs market. The authors identify all the off-patent drugs that have been approved by the FDA since 1939 and all the manufacturers of those drugs that were approved by the FDA and by other trusted agencies. No analysis is given of how this might affect drug prices, though there is a pretty obvious correlation between the number of manufacturers and drug prices shown elsewhere. The results show that the proposed policy would increase the number of manufacturers for a sizeable proportion of generics: for example, 39% of generic medications could reach four or more manufacturers when including those approved by non-FDA bodies.

Why internists might want single-payer health care. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 20th March 2018

The US healthcare system has long been an object of fascination for many health economists. It spends far more than any other nation on healthcare (approximately $9,000 per capita compared to, say, $4,000 for the UK) and yet population health ranks alongside middle-income countries like Cuba and Ecuador. Garber and Skinner wondered whether it was uniquely inefficient and identified or questioned a number of issues that may or may not explain the efficiency or lack thereof. One of these was the administrative burden of multiple insurance companies, which evidence suggests does not actually account for much of the total expenditure on health care. However, Garber and Skinner say this does not take into account time spent by clinical and non-clinical staff on administration within hospitals. In this opinion piece, Paul Sorum argues that internists should support a move to a single-payer system in the US. One of his four points is the administrative burden of dealing with insurance companies, which he cites as an astonishing 61 hours per week per physician (presumably spread across a number of staff). Certainly, this seems to be a key issue. But Sorum’s other three points don’t necessarily support a single-payer system. He also argues that the insurance system is leading to increasing deductibles and co-payments placed on patients, limiting access to medications, as drug prices rise. Indeed, Garber and Skinner note also that high deductibles limit the use of highly cost-effective measures and actually have the opposite effect of reducing productive efficiency. A single payer system per se would not solve this, it would need significant subsidies and regulation as well, and as our previous paper shows, other measures can be used to bring down drug prices. Sorum also argues that the US insurance system places an unnecessary burden from quality measures and assessment as well as electronic medical records used to collect information for billing purposes. But these issues of quality and electronic medical records have been discussed in the context of many health care systems, not least the NHS, as the political and regulatory framework still requires this. So a single-payer system is not a solution here. A key difference between the US and elsewhere that Garber and Skinner identify is that the US permits much more heterogeneity in access to and use of health care (e.g. overuse by the wealthy and underuse by the poor). Significant political barriers stand in the way of a single payer system, and since other means can be used to achieve universal coverage, such as the provisions in the Affordable Care Act, maybe internists would be better directing their energy at more achievable goals.

Social ties in academia: a friend is a treasure. Review of Economics and Statistics [RePEcPublished 2nd March 2018

If you ever wondered whether the reason you didn’t get published in that top economics journal was that you didn’t know the right people, you may well be right! This article examines the social ties between authors and editors of the top four economics journals. Almost half of the papers published in these journals had at least one author with a connection to an editor, either through working in the same department, co-authoring a paper, or PhD supervision. The QJE appears to be the worst offender with (if I’ve read this correctly) all authors between 2000 and 2006 getting their PhD in either Harvard or MIT. So don’t bother trying to get published there! This article also shows that you’re more likely to get a paper into the journals when your former PhD supervisor is editing it. Given how much sway a paper published in these journals has on the future careers of young economists, it is disheartening to see the extent of nepotism in the publication process. Of course, one may argue that it just so happens that those that work at the top journals associate most frequently with those who write the best papers. But given even a little understanding of human nature, one would be inclined to discount this explanation. We have all previously asked ourselves, especially when writing a journal round-up, how this or that paper got into a particularly highly regarded journal, now we know…

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