Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 14th January 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.

Income distribution and health: can polarization explain health outcomes better than inequality? The European Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published 4th December 2018

One of my main interests is health inequalities. I thought polarisation was intuitive; I had seen it in the context of the UK and the US employment market; an increase in poorly-paid ‘McJobs’ and an increase in well-paid ‘MacJobs’, with fewer jobs in the middle. But I hadn’t seen polarisation measured in a statistical way.

Traditional measures of population inequalities like Gini or Atkinson index measure the share of income or the ratio of richest to poorest. But polarisation goes a step further and looks whether there are discrete clusters or groups who have similar incomes. The theory goes that having discrete groups increases social alienation, conflict and socioeconomic comparison and increases health inequalities. Now, I get how you can test statistically for discrete income clusters, and there is an evidence base for the relationship between polarisation and social tension. But groups will cluster based on other factors besides income. I feel like it may be taking a leap to assume a statistical finding (income polarisation) will always represent a sociological construct (alienation) but I confess I don’t know the literature behind this.

China is a country with an increasing degree of polarisation as measured by the Duclos, Esteban and Ray (DER) polarisation indices, and this study suggests that it is related to health status. This study looked at trends in BMI and systolic blood pressure from 1991 to 2011 and found both to increase with increased polarisation. I imagine a lot of other social change went on in this time period in China. I think BMI might not be a good candidate for measuring the effect of polarisation, as being poor is associated with malnourishment and low weight as well as obesity. The authors found that social capital (based on increasing family size, community size, and living in the same community for a long time) had a protective effect against the effects of polarisation on health. Whether this study provides more evidence for the socioeconomic comparison or status anxiety theories of health inequalities, I am not sure; it could equally provide evidence for the neo-materialist (i.e. simply not having enough resources for a healthy life) theories – the relative importance will likely differ by country anyway.

Maybe we don’t need to add more measures of inequality to the mix but I am intrigued. I am just starting my journey with polarisation but I think it has promise.

Two-year evaluation of mandatory bundled payments for joint replacement. The New England Journal of Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd January 2019

Joint replacements are a big cost to western healthcare systems and often delayed or rationed (partly because replacement joints may only have a 10-20 year lifespan on average). In the UK, for instance, joint replacements have been rationed based on factors like BMI or pain levels (in my opinion, often in an arbitrary way to save money).

This paper found that having a bundled payments and penalties model (Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement; CJR) for optimal care around hip and knee replacements reduced Medicare spending per episode compared to areas that did not pilot the programme. The overall difference was small in absolute terms at $812 against a total cost of around $24,000 per episode. The programme involves the hospital meeting a set of performance measures, and if they can do so at a lower cost, any savings are shared between the hospital and the payer. Cost savings were mainly driven by a reduction in patients being discharged to post-acute care facilities. Rates of complex patients were similar between pilot and control areas – this is important because a lower rate of complex cases in the CJR trial areas might indicate hospitals ‘cherry picking’ easier to treat, less expensive cases. Also, rates of complications were not significantly different between the CJR pilot areas and controls.
This paper suggests that having this kind of bundled payment programme can save money while maintaining quality.

Association of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program with mortality among Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. JAMA [PubMed] Published 25th December 2018

Nobody likes being in hospital. But sometimes hospitals are the best places for people. This paper looks at possible unintended consequences of a US programme; the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) where the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) impose financial penalties (almost $2billion dollars’ worth since 2012) on hospitals with elevated 30-day readmission rates for patients with heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. This study compared four time periods (no control group) and found that, after the programme was implemented, death rates for people who had been admitted with pneumonia and heart failure increased, with these increased deaths occurring more in people who had not been readmitted to hospital. The analysis controlled for differences in demographics, comorbidities, and calendar month using propensity scores and inverse probability weighting.

The authors are clear that their results do not establish cause and effect but are concerning nonetheless and worthy of more analysis. Incidentally, there is another paper this week in Health Affairs which suggests that the benefits of the programme in reducing readmissions was overstated.

There has been a similar financial incentive in the English NHS where hospitals are subject to the 30-day readmission rule, meaning they are not paid for people who are readmitted as an emergency within 30 days of being discharged. This is shortly to be abolished for 2019/20. I wonder if there has been similar research on whether this also led to unintended consequences in the NHS. Maybe there is a general lesson here about thinking a bit deeper about the potential outcomes of incentives in healthcare markets?

In these last two papers, we have had two examples of financial incentive programmes from Medicare. The CJR, which seems to have worked, has been dampened down from a mandatory to a voluntary programme, while the HRRP, which may not have worked, has been extended.

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Rita Faria’s journal round-up for 18th 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.

Objectives, budgets, thresholds, and opportunity costs—a health economics approach: an ISPOR Special Task Force report. Value in Health [PubMedPublished 21st February 2018

The economic evaluation world has been discussing cost-effectiveness thresholds for a while. This paper has been out for a few months, but it slipped under my radar. It explains the relationship between the cost-effectiveness threshold, the budget, opportunity costs and willingness to pay for health. My take-home messages are that we should use cost-effectiveness analysis to inform decisions both for publicly funded and privately funded health care systems. Each system has a budget and a way of raising funds for that budget. The cost-effectiveness threshold should be specific for each health care system, in order to reflect its specific opportunity cost. The budget can change for many reasons. The cost-effectiveness threshold should be adjusted to reflect these changes and hence reflect the opportunity cost. For example, taxpayers can increase their willingness to pay for health through increased taxes for the health care system. We are starting to see this in the UK with the calls to raise taxes to increase the NHS budget. It is worth noting that the NICE threshold may not warrant adjustment upwards since research suggests that it does not reflect the opportunity cost. This is a welcome paper on the topic and a must read, particularly if you’re arguing for the use of cost-effectiveness analysis in settings that traditionally were reluctant to embrace it, such as the US.

Basic versus supplementary health insurance: access to care and the role of cost effectiveness. Journal of Health Economics [RePEc] Published 31st May 2018

Using cost-effectiveness analysis to inform coverage decisions not only for the public but also for the privately funded health care is also a feature of this study by Jan Boone. I’ll admit that the equations are well beyond my level of microeconomics, but the text is good at explaining the insights and the intuition. Boone grapples with the question about how the public and private health care systems should choose which technologies to cover. Boone concludes that, when choosing which technologies to cover, the most cost-effective technologies should be prioritised for funding. That the theory matches the practice is reassuring to an economic evaluator like myself! One of the findings is that cost-effective technologies which are very cheap should not be covered. The rationale being that everyone can afford them. The issue for me is that people may decide not to purchase a highly cost-effective technology which is very cheap. As we know from behaviour economics, people are not rational all the time! Boone also concludes that the inclusion of technologies in the universal basic package should consider the prevalence of the conditions in those people at high risk and with low income. The way that I interpreted this is that it is more cost-effective to include technologies for high-risk low-income people in the universal basic package who would not be able to afford these technologies otherwise, than technologies for high-income people who can afford supplementary insurance. I can’t cover here all the findings and the nuances of the theoretical model. Suffice to say that it is an interesting read, even if you avoid the equations like myself.

Surveying the cost effectiveness of the 20 procedures with the largest public health services waiting lists in Ireland: implications for Ireland’s cost-effectiveness threshold. Value in Health Published 11th June 2018

As we are on the topic of cost-effectiveness thresholds, this is a study on the threshold in Ireland. This study sets out to find out if the current cost-effectiveness threshold is too high given the ICERs of the 20 procedures with the largest waiting lists. The idea is that, if the current cost-effectiveness threshold is correct, the procedures with large and long waiting lists would have an ICER of above the cost-effectiveness threshold. If the procedures have a low ICER, the cost-effectiveness threshold may be set too high. I thought that Figure 1 is excellent in conveying the discordance between ICERs and waiting lists. For example, the ICER for extracapsular extraction of crystalline lens is €10,139/QALY and the waiting list has 10,056 people; the ICER for surgical tooth removal is €195,155/QALY and the waiting list is smaller at 833. This study suggests that, similar to many other countries, there are inefficiencies in the way that the Irish health care system prioritises technologies for funding. The limitation of the study is in the ICERs. Ideally, the relevant ICER compares the procedure with the standard care in Ireland whilst on the waiting list (“no procedure” option). But it is nigh impossible to find ICERs that meet this condition for all procedures. The alternative is to assume that the difference in costs and QALYs is generalisable from the source study to Ireland. It was great to see another study on empirical cost-effectiveness thresholds. Looking forward to knowing what the cost-effectiveness threshold should be to accurately reflect opportunity costs.

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Thesis Thursday: Estela Capelas Barbosa

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 Estela Capelas Barbosa who graduated with a PhD from the University of York. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Overall unfair inequality in health care: an application to Brazil
Supervisor
Richard Cookson
Repository link
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16649/

What’s the difference between fair and unfair inequality, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

Not all inequality is the same. Whilst most inequality in health and health care is unwanted, one could argue that some inequality is even desirable. For example, we all agree that women should receive more care than men because they have a higher need for health care. The same argument could be used for children. Therefore, when looking into inequality, from a philosophical point of view, it is important to distinguish between inequality that is deemed fair (as in my women’s example) and that considered unfair. But there is a catch! Because ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ are normative value judgements, different people may have different views as to what is fair or unfair. That’s why, in the thesis, I worked hard to come up with a framework that was flexible enough to allow for different views of fair and unfair.

Your thesis describes a novel way of thinking about inequality. What led you to believe that other conceptualisations were inadequate?

Previously, inequality in health care was either dealt with in overall terms, using a Gini coefficient type of analysis, or focused on income and socioeconomic inequality (see Wagstaff and Van Doorslaer, 2004). As a field researcher in Brazil, I had first-hand experience that there was more to unfair inequality than income. I remember personally meeting a very wealthy man that had many difficulties in accessing the healthcare system simply because he lived in a very remote rural area of the country. I wanted to better understand this and look beyond income to explain inequality in Brazil. Thus, neither of the well-established methods seemed really appropriate for my analysis. I knew I could adjust my Gini for need, but this type of analysis did not explicitly allow for a distinction between unfair and fair inequality. At the other extreme, income-related inequality was just a very narrow definition of unfairness. Although the established methods were my starting point, I agreed with Fleurbaey and Schokkaert that there could be yet another way of looking at inequality in health care, and I drew inspiration from their proposed method for health and made adjustments and modifications for the application to health care.

What were some of your key findings about the sources of inequality, and how were they measured in your data?

I guess my most important finding is that the sources of unfair inequality have changed between 1998 and 2013. For example, the contribution of income to unfair inequality decreased in this time for physician visits and mammography screening, yet for cervical screening it nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013. I have also found that there are other sources of inequality which are important (sometimes even more than income), as for example having private health insurance, education, living in urban areas and region.

As to my data, it came from Health Supplement of the Brazilian National Household Sample Survey for the years 1998, 2003 and 2008 and the first National Health Survey, conducted in 2013 (see www.ibge.gov.br). The surveys use standardised questionnaires and rely on self-report for most questions, particularly those related to health care coverage and health status.

Your analysis looks at a relatively long period of time. What can you tell us about long-term trends in Brazil?

It is difficult to talk about long-term trends in Brazil at the moment. Our (universal) healthcare system has only been in place since 1988 and, since the last wave of data (in 2013), there has been a strong political movement to dismantle the national system and sell it to the private sector. I guess the movement to reduce and/or privatise the NHS also exists here, but, unlike in the UK, our national system has always been massively under-resourced, so it is not as highly-regarded by the population.

Having said that, it is fair to say that in its first 25 years of existence, Brazil has accomplished a lot in terms of healthcare (I have described – in Portuguese – some of the achievements and challenges). The Brazilian National Health System covers over 200 million people and accounts for nearly 500 thousand hospital beds. In terms of inequality, over time, it has decreased for physician visits and cervical screening, though for mammography there is no clear trend.

What would you like to see policymakers in Brazil prioritise in respect to reducing inequality?

First and foremost, I would like policymakers to understand that over three-quarters of the Brazilian population relies on the national system as their one and only health care provider. Second, I would like to reinforce the idea that social inequality in health care in Brazil is not only and indeed not primarily related to income. In fact, other social variables such as education, region, urban or rural residency and health insurance status are as important or even more important than income. This implies that there are supply side actions that can be taken, which should be much easier to implement. For example, more health care equipment, such as MRIs and CT scanners could be purchased for the North and Northeast regions. This could potentially reduce unfair inequality. Policies can also be directed at improving access to care in rural regions, although this factor is not as important a contributor to inequality as it used to be. I guess the overall message is: there are several things that can be done to reduce unfair inequality in Brazil, but all depend on political will and understanding the importance of the healthcare system for the health of the population.