Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 14th October 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.

Transparency in health economic modeling: options, issues and potential solutions. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 8th October 2019

Reading this paper was a strange experience. The purpose of the paper, and its content, is much the same as a paper of my own, which was published in the same journal a few months ago.

The authors outline what they see as the options for transparency in the context of decision modelling, with a focus on open source models and a focus on for whom the details are transparent. Models might be transparent to a small number of researchers (e.g. in peer review), to HTA agencies, or to the public at large. The paper includes a figure showing the two aspects of transparency, termed ‘reach’ and ‘level’, which relate to the number of people who can access the information and the level of detail made available. We provided a similar figure in our paper, using the terms ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’, which is at least some validation of our idea. The authors then go on to discuss five ‘issues’ with transparency: copyright, model misuse, confidential data, software, and time/resources. These issues are framed as questions, to which the authors posit some answers as solutions.

Perhaps inevitably, I think our paper does a better job, and so I’m probably over-critical of this article. Ours is more comprehensive, if nothing else. But I also think the authors make a few missteps. There’s a focus on models created by academic researchers, which oversimplifies the discussion somewhat. Open source modelling is framed as a more complete solution than it really is. The ‘issues’ that are discussed are at points framed as drawbacks or negative features of transparency, which they aren’t. Certainly, they’re challenges, but they aren’t reasons not to pursue transparency. ‘Copyright’ seems to be used as a synonym for intellectual property, and transparency is considered to be a threat to this. The authors’ proposed solution here is to use licensing fees. I think that’s a bad idea. Levying a fee creates an incentive to disregard copyright, not respect it.

It’s a little ironic that both this paper and my own were published, when both describe the benefits of transparency in terms of reducing “duplication of efforts”. No doubt, I read this paper with a far more critical eye than I normally would. Had I not published a paper on precisely the same subject, I might’ve thought this paper was brilliant.

If we recognize heterogeneity of treatment effect can we lessen waste? Journal of Comparative Effectiveness Research [PubMed] Published 1st October 2019

This commentary starts from the premise that a pervasive overuse of resources creates a lot of waste in health care, which I guess might be true in the US. Apparently, this is because clinicians have an insufficient understanding of heterogeneity in treatment effects and therefore assume average treatment effects for their patients. The authors suggest that this situation is reinforced by clinical trial publications tending to only report average treatment effects. I’m not sure whether the authors are arguing that clinicians are too knowledgable and dependent on the research, or that they don’t know the research well enough. Either way, it isn’t a very satisfying explanation of the overuse of health care. Certainly, patients could benefit from more personalised care, and I would support the authors’ argument in favour of stratified studies and the reporting of subgroup treatment effects. The most insightful part of this paper is the argument that these stratifications should be on the basis of observable characteristics. It isn’t much use to your general practitioner if personalisation requires genome sequencing. In short, I agree with the authors’ argument that we should do more to recognise heterogeneity of treatment effects, but I’m not sure it has much to do with waste.

No evidence for a protective effect of education on mental health. Social Science & Medicine Published 3rd October 2019

When it comes to the determinants of health and well-being, I often think back to my MSc dissertation research. As part of that, I learned that a) stuff that you might imagine to be important often isn’t and b) methodological choices matter a lot. Though it wasn’t the purpose of my study, it seemed from this research that higher education has a negative effect on people’s subjective well-being. But there isn’t much research out there to help us understand the association between education and mental health in general.

This study add to a small body of literature on the impact of changes in compulsory schooling on mental health. In (West) Germany, education policy was determined at the state level, so when compulsory schooling was extended from eight to nine years, different states implemented the change at different times between 1949 and 1969. This study includes 5,321 people, with 20,290 person-year observations, from the German Socio-Economic Panel survey (SOEP). Inclusion was based on people being born seven years either side of the cutoff birth year for which the longer compulsory schooling was enacted, with a further restriction to people aged between 50 and 85. The SOEP includes the SF-12 questionnaire, which includes a mental health component score (MCS). There is also an 11-point life satisfaction scale. The authors use an instrumental variable approach, using the policy change as an instrument for years of schooling and estimating a standard two-stage least squares model. The MCS score, life satisfaction score, and a binary indicator for MCS score lower than or equal to 45.6, are all modelled as separate outcomes.

Estimates using an OLS model show a positive and highly significant effect of years of schooling on all three outcomes. But when the instrumental variable model is used, this effect disappears. An additional year of schooling in this model is associated with a statistically and clinically insignificant decrease in the MCS score. Also insignificant was the finding that more years of schooling increases the likelihood of developing symptoms of a mental health disorder (as indicated by the MCS threshold of 45.6) and that life satisfaction is slightly lower. The same model shows a positive effect on physical health, which corresponds with previous research and provides some reassurance that the model could detect an effect if one existed.

The specification of the model seems reasonable and a host of robustness checks are reported. The only potential issue I could spot is that a person’s state of residence at the time of schooling is not observed, and so their location at entry into the sample is used. Given that education is associated with mobility, this could be a problem, and I would have liked to see the authors subject it to more testing. The overall finding – that an additional year of school for people who might otherwise only stay at school for eight years does not improve mental health – is persuasive. But the extent to which we can say anything more general about the impact of education on well-being is limited. What if it had been three years of additional schooling, rather than one? There is still much work to be done in this area.

Scientific sinkhole: the pernicious price of formatting. PLoS One [PubMed] Published 26th September 2019

This study is based on a survey that asked 372 researchers from 41 countries about the time they spent formatting manuscripts for journal submission. Let’s see how I can frame this as health economics… Well, some of the participants are health researchers. The time they spend on formatting journal submissions is time not spent on health research. The opportunity cost of time spent formatting could be measured in terms of health.

The authors focused on the time and wage costs of formatting. The results showed that formatting took a median time of 52 hours per person per year, at a cost of $477 per manuscript or $1,908 per person per year. Researchers spend – on average – 14 hours on formatting a manuscript. That’s outrageous. I have never spent that long on formatting. If you do, you only have yourself to blame. Or maybe it’s just because of what I consider to constitute formatting. The survey asked respondents to consider formatting of figures, tables, and supplementary files. Improving the format of a figure or a table can add real value to a paper. A good figure or table can change a bad paper to a good paper. I’d love to know how the time cost differed for people using LaTeX.

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Thesis Thursday: David Mott

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr David Mott who has a PhD from Newcastle University. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
How do preferences for public health interventions differ? A case study using a weight loss maintenance intervention
Supervisors
Luke Vale, Laura Ternent
Repository link
http://hdl.handle.net/10443/4197

Why is it important to understand variation in people’s preferences?

It’s not all that surprising that people’s preferences for health care interventions vary, but we don’t have a great understanding of what might drive these differences. Increasingly, preference information is being used to support regulatory decisions and, to a lesser but increasing extent, health technology assessments. It could be the case that certain subgroups of individuals would not accept the risks associated with a particular health care intervention, whereas others would. Therefore, identifying differences in preferences is important. However, it’s also useful to try to understand why this heterogeneity might occur in the first place.

The debate on whose preferences to elicit for health state valuation has traditionally focused on those with experience (e.g. patients) and those without (e.g. the general population). Though this dichotomy is problematic; it has been shown that health state utilities systematically differ between these two groups, presumably due to the difference in relative experience. My project aimed to explore whether experience also affects people’s preferences for health care interventions.

How did you identify different groups of people, whose preferences might differ?

The initial plan for the project was to elicit preferences for a health care intervention from general population and patient samples. However, after reviewing the literature, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would advocate for preferences for treatments to be elicited from general population samples. It has long been suggested that discrete choice experiments (DCEs) could be used to incorporate patient preferences into decision-making, and it turned out that patients were the focus of the majority of the DCE studies that I reviewed. Given this, I took a more granular approach in my empirical work.

We recruited a very experienced group of ‘service users’ from a randomised controlled trial (RCT). In this case, it was a novel weight loss maintenance intervention aimed at helping obese adults that had lost at least 5% of their overall weight to maintain their weight loss. We also recruited an additional three groups from an online panel. The first group were ‘potential service users’ – those that met the trial criteria but could not have experienced the intervention. The second group were ‘potential beneficiaries’ – those that were obese or overweight and did not meet the trial criteria. The final group were ‘non-users’ – those with a normal BMI.

What can your study tell us about preferences in the context of a weight loss maintenance intervention?

The empirical part of my study involved a DCE and an open-ended contingent valuation (CV) task. The DCE was focused on the delivery of the trial intervention, which was a technology-assisted behavioural intervention. It had a number of different components but, briefly, it involved participants weighing themselves regularly on a set of ‘smart scales’, which enabled the trial team to access and monitor the data. Participants received text messages from the trial team with feedback, reminders to weigh themselves (if necessary), and links to online tools and content to support the maintenance of their weight loss.

The DCE results suggested that preferences for the various components of the intervention varied significantly between individuals and between the different groups – and not all were important. In contrast, the efficacy and cost attributes were important across the board. The CV results suggested that a very significant proportion of individuals would be willing to pay for an effective intervention (i.e. that avoided weight regain), with very few respondents expressing a willingness to pay for an intervention that led to more than 10-20% weight regain.

Do alternative methods for preference elicitation provide a consistent picture of variation in preferences?

Existing evidence suggests that willingness to pay (WTP) estimates from CV tasks might differ from those derived from DCE data, but there aren’t a lot of empirical studies on this in health. Comparisons were planned in my study, but the approach taken in the end was suboptimal and ultimately inconclusive. The original plan was to obtain WTP estimates for an entire WLM intervention using the DCE and to compare this with the estimates from the CV task. Due to data limitations, it wasn’t possible to make this comparison. However, the CV task was a bit unusual because we asked for respondents’ WTP at various different efficacy levels. So instead the comparison made was between average WTP values for a percentage point of weight re-gain. The differences were statistically insignificant.

Are some people’s preferences ‘better defined’ than others’?

We hypothesised that those with experience of the trial intervention would have ‘better defined’ preferences. To explore this, we compared the data quality across the different user groups. From a quick glance at the DCE results, it is pretty clear that the data were much better for the most experienced group; the coefficients were larger, and a much higher proportion was statistically significant. However, more interestingly, we found that the most experienced group were 23% more likely to have passed all of the rationality tests that were embedded in the DCE. Therefore, if you accept that better quality data is an indicator of ‘better defined’ preferences, then the data do seem reasonably supportive of the hypothesis. That being said, there were no significant differences between the other three groups, begging the question: was it the difference in experience, or some other difference between RCT participants and online panel respondents?

What does your research imply for the use of preferences in resource allocation decisions?

While there are still many unanswered questions, and there is always a need for further research, the results from my PhD project suggest that preferences for health care interventions can differ significantly between respondents with differing levels of experience. Had my project been applied to a more clinical intervention that is harder for an average person to imagine experiencing, I would expect the differences to have been much larger. I’d love to see more research in this area in future, especially in the context of benefit-risk trade-offs.

The key message is that the level of experience of the participants matters. It is quite reasonable to believe that a preference study focusing on a particular subgroup of patients will not be generalisable to the broader patient population. As preference data, typically elicited from patients, is increasingly being used in decision-making – which is great – it is becoming increasingly important for researchers to make sure that their respondent samples are appropriate to support the decisions that are being made.

Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th November 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.

Alcohol and self-control: a field experiment in India. American Economic Review Forthcoming

Addiction is complex. For many people it is characterised by a need or compulsion to take something, often to prevent withdrawal, often in conflict with a desire to not take it. This conflicts with Gary Becker’s much-maligned rational theory of addiction, which views the addiction as a choice to maximise utility in the long term. Under Becker’s model, one could use market-based mechanisms to end repeated, long-term drug or alcohol use. By making the cost of continuing to use higher then people would choose to stop. This has led to the development of interventions like conditional payment or cost mechanisms: a user would receive a payment on condition of sobriety. Previous studies, however, have found little evidence people would be willing to pay for such sobriety contracts. This article reports a randomised trial among rickshaw drivers in Chennai, India, a group of people with a high prevalence of high alcohol use and dependency. The three trial arms consisted of a control arm who received an unconditional daily payment, a treatment arm who received a small payment plus extra if they passed a breathalyser test, and a third arm who had the choice between either of the two payment mechanisms. Two findings are of much interest. First, the incentive payments significantly increased daytime sobriety, and second, over half the participants preferred the conditional sobriety payments over the unconditional payments when they were weakly dominated, and a third still preferred them even when the unconditional payments were higher than the maximum possible conditional payment. This conflicts with a market-based conception of addiction and its treatment. Indeed, the nature of addiction means it can override all intrinsic motivation to stop, or do anything else frankly. So it makes sense that individuals are willing to pay for extrinsic motivation, which in this case did make a difference.

Heterogeneity in long term health outcomes of migrants within Italy. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 2nd November 2018

We’ve discussed neighbourhood effects a number of times on this blog (here and here, for example). In the absence of a randomised allocation to different neighbourhoods or areas, it is very difficult to discern why people living there or who have moved there might be better or worse off than elsewhere. This article is another neighbourhood effects analysis, this time framed through the lens of immigration. It looks at those who migrated within Italy in the 1970s during a period of large northward population movements. The authors, in essence, identify the average health and mental health of people who moved to different regions conditional on duration spent in origin destinations and a range of other factors. The analysis is conceptually similar to that of two papers we discussed at length on internal migration in the US and labour market outcomes in that it accounts for the duration of ‘exposure’ to poorer areas and differences between destinations. In the case of the labour market outcomes papers, the analysis couldn’t really differentiate between a causal effect of a neighbourhood increasing human capital, differences in labour market conditions, and unobserved heterogeneity between migrating people and families. Now this article examining Italian migration looks at health outcomes, such as the SF-12, which limit the explanations since one cannot ‘earn’ more health by moving elsewhere. Nevertheless, the labour market can still impact upon health strongly.

The authors carefully discuss the difficulties in identifying causal effects here. A number of model extensions are also estimated to try to deal with some issues discussed. This includes a type of propensity score weighting approach, although I would emphasize that this categorically does not deal with issues of unobserved heterogeneity. A finite mixture model is also estimated. Generally a well-thought-through analysis. However, there is a reliance on statistical significance here. I know I do bang on about statistical significance a lot, but it is widely used inappropriately. A rule of thumb I’ve adopted for reviewing papers for journals is that if the conclusions would change if you changed the statistical significance threshold then there’s probably an issue. This article would fail that test. They use a threshold of p<0.10 which seems inappropriate for an analysis with a sample size in the tens of thousands and they build a concluding narrative around what is and isn’t statistically significant. This is not to detract from the analysis, merely its interpretation. In future, this could be helped by banning asterisks in tables, like the AER has done, or better yet developing submission guidelines around its use.

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