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.


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…



Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 13th 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.

Scaling for economists: lessons from the non-adherence problem in the medical literature. Journal of Economic Perspectives [RePEcPublished November 2017

It has often been said that development economics has been at the vanguard of the use of randomised trials within economics. Other areas of economics have slowly caught up; the internal validity, and causal interpretation, offered by experimental randomised studies can provide reliable estimates for the effects of particular interventions. Health economics though has perhaps an even longer history with randomised controlled trials (RCTs), and now economic evaluation is often expected alongside clinical trials. RCTs of physician incentives and payments, investment programmes in child health, or treatment provision in schools all feature as other examples. However, even experimental studies can suffer from the same biases in the data analysis process as observational studies. The multiple decisions made in the data analysis and publication stages of research can lead to over-inflated estimates. Beyond that, the experimental conditions of the trial may not pertain in the real world – the study may lack external validity. The medical literature has long recognised this issue, as many as 50% of patients don’t take the medicines prescribed to them by a doctor. As a result, there has been considerable effort to develop an understanding of, and interventions to remedy, the lack of transferability between RCTs and real-world outcomes. This article summarises this literature and develops lessons for economists, who are only just starting to deal with, what they term, ‘the scaling problem’. For example, there are many reasons people don’t respond to incentives as expected: there are psychological costs to switching; people are hyperbolic discounters and often prefer small short-term gains for larger long-term costs; and, people can often fail to understand the implications of sets of complex options. We have also previously discussed the importance of social preferences in decision making. The key point is that, as policy is becoming more and more informed by randomised studies, we need to be careful about over-optimism of effect sizes and start to understand adherence to different policies in the real world. Only then are recommendations reliable.

Estimating the opportunity costs of bed-days. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 6th November 2017

The health economic evaluation of health service delivery interventions is becoming an important issue in health economics. We’ve discussed on many occasions questions surrounding the implementation of seven-day health services in England and Wales, for example. Other service delivery interventions might include changes to staffing levels more generally, medical IT technology, or an incentive to improve hand washing. Key to the evaluation of these interventions is that they are all generally targeted at improving quality of care – that is, to reduce preventable harm. The vast majority of patients who experience some sort of preventable harm do not die but are likely to experience longer lengths of stay in hospital. Consider a person suffering from bed sores or a fall in hospital. Therefore, we need to be able to value those extra bed days to be able to say what the value of improving hospital quality is. Typically we use reference costs or average accounting costs for the opportunity cost of a bed-day, mainly for pragmatic reasons, but also on the assumption that this is equivalent to the value of the second-best alternative foregone. This requires the assumption that health care markets operate properly, which they almost certainly do not. This paper explores the different ways economists have thought about opportunity costs and applies them to the question of the opportunity cost of a hospital bed-day. This includes definitions such as “Net health benefit forgone for the second-best patient‐equivalents”, “Net monetary benefit forgone for the second-best treatment-equivalents”, and “Expenditure incurred + highest net revenue forgone.” The key takeaway is that there is wide variation in the estimated opportunity costs using all the different methods and that, given the assumptions underpinning the most widely used methodologies are unlikely to hold, we may be routinely under- or over-valuing the effects of different interventions.

Universal investment in infants and long-run health: evidence from Denmark’s 1937 Home Visiting Program. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics [RePEcPublished October 2017

We have covered a raft of studies that look at the effects of in-utero health on later life outcomes, the so-called fetal origins hypothesis. A smaller, though by no means small, literature has considered what impact improving infant and childhood health has on later life adult outcomes. While many of these studies consider programmes that occurred decades ago in the US or Europe, their findings are still relevant today as many countries are grappling with high infant and childhood mortality. For many low-income countries, programmes with community health workers – lay-community members provided with some basic public health training – involving home visits, education, and referral services are being widely adopted. This article looks at the later life impacts of an infant health programme, the Home Visiting Program, implemented in Denmark in the 1930s and 40s. The aim of the programme was to provide home visits to every newborn in each district to provide education on feeding and hygiene practices and to monitor infant progress. The programme was implemented in a trial based fashion with different districts adopting the programme at different times and some districts remaining as control districts, although selection into treatment and control was not random. Data were obtained about the health outcomes in the period 1980-2012 of people born 1935-49. In short, the analyses suggest that the programme improved adult longevity and health outcomes, although the effects are small. For example, they estimate the programme reduced hospitalisations by half a day between the age of 45 and 64, and 2 to 6 more people per 1,000 survived past 60 years of age. However, these effect sizes may be large enough to justify what may be a reasonably low-cost programme when scaled across the population.