Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 12th 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.

Estimating health opportunity costs in low-income and middle-income countries: a novel approach and evidence from cross-country data. BMJ Global Health. Published November 2017.

The relationship between health care expenditure and population health outcomes is a topic that comes up often on this blog. Understanding how population health changes in response to increases or decreases in the health system budget is a reasonable way to set a cost-effectiveness threshold. Purchasing things above this threshold will, on average, displace activity with greater benefits. But identifying this effect is hard. Commonly papers use some kind of instrumental variable method to try to get at the causal effect with aggregate, say country-level, data. These instruments, though, can be controversial. Years ago I tried to articulate why I thought using socio-economic variables as instruments was inappropriate. I also wrote a short paper a few years ago, which remains unpublished, that used international commodity price indexes as an instrument for health spending in Sub-Saharan Africa, where commodity exports are a big driver of national income. This was rejected from a journal because of the choice of instruments. Commodity prices may well influence other things in the country that can influence population health. And a similar critique could be made of this article here, which uses consumption:investment ratios and military expenditure in neighbouring countries as instruments for national health expenditure in low and middle income countries.

I remain unconvinced by these instruments. The paper doesn’t present validity checks on them, which is forgiveable given medical journal word limitations, but does mean it is hard to assess. In any case, consumption:investment ratios change in line with the general macroeconomy – in an economic downturn this should change (assuming savings = investment) as people switch from consumption to investment. There are a multitude of pathways through which this will affect health. Similarly, neighbouring military expenditure would act by displacing own-country health expenditure towards military expenditure. But for many regions of the world, there has been little conflict between neighbours in recent years. And at the very least there would be a lag on this effect. Indeed, in all the models of health expenditure and population health outcomes I’ve seen, barely a handful take into account dynamic effects.

Now, I don’t mean to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I would never have suggested this paper should not be published as it is, at the very least, important for the discussion of health care expenditure and cost-effectiveness. But I don’t feel there is strong enough evidence to accept these as causal estimates. I would even be willing to go as far to say that any mechanism that affects health care expenditure is likely to affect population health by some other means, since health expenditure is typically decided in the context of the broader public sector budget. That’s without considering what happens with private expenditure on health.

Strategic Patient Discharge: The Case of Long-Term Care Hospitals. American Economic Review. [RePEcPublished November 2018.

An important contribution of health economics has been to undermine people’s trust that doctors act in their best interest. Perhaps that’s a little facetious, nevertheless there has been ample demonstration that health care providers will often act in their own self-interest. Often this is due to trying to maximise revenue by gaming reimbursement schemes, but also includes things like doctors acting differently near the end of their shift so they can go home on time. So when I describe a particular reimbursement scheme that Medicare in the US uses, I don’t think there’ll be any doubt about the results of this study of it.

In the US, long-term acute care hospitals (LTCHs) specialise in treating patients with chronic care needs who require extended inpatient stays. Medicare reimbursement typically works on a fixed rate for each of many diagnostic related groups (DRGs), but given the longer and more complex care needs in LTCHs, they get a higher tariff. To discourage admitting patients purely to get higher levels of reimbursement, the bulk of the payment only kicks in after a certain length of stay. Like I said – you can guess what happened.

This article shows 26% of patients are discharged in the three days after the length of stay threshold compared to just 7% in the three days prior. This pattern is most strongly observed in discharges to home, and is not present in patients who die. But this may still be just by chance that the threshold and these discharges coincide. Fortunately for the authors the thresholds differ between DRGs and even move around within a DRG over time in a way that appears unrelated to actual patient health. They therefore estimate a set of decision models for patient discharge to try to estimate the effect of different reimbursement policies.

Estimating misreporting in condom use and its determinants among sex workers: Evidence from the list randomisation method. Health Economics. Published November 2018.

Working on health and health care research, especially if you conduct surveys, means you often want to ask people about sensitive topics. These could include sex and sexuality, bodily function, mood, or other ailments. For example, I work a fair bit on sanitation, where frequently self-reported diarrhoea in under fives (reported by the mother that is) is the primary outcome. This could be poorly reported particularly if an intervention includes any kind of educational component that suggests it could be the mother’s fault for, say, not washing her hands, if the child gets diarrhoea. This article looks at condom use among female sex workers in Senegal, another potentially sensitive topic, since unprotected sex is seen as risky. To try and get at the true prevalence of condom use, the authors use a ‘list randomisation’ method. This randomises survey participants to two sets of questions: a set of non-sensitive statements, or the same set of statements with the sensitive question thrown in. All respondents have to do is report the number of the statements they agree with. This means it is generally not possible to distinguish the response to the sensitive question, but the difference in average number of statements reported between the two groups gives an unbiased estimator for the population proportion. Neat, huh? Ultimately the authors report an estimate of 80% of sex workers using condoms, which compares to the 97% who said they used a condom when asked directly.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 10th September 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.

Probabilistic sensitivity analysis in cost-effectiveness models: determining model convergence in cohort models. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 27th July 2018

Probabilistic sensitivity analysis (PSA) is rightfully a required component of economic evaluations. Deterministic sensitivity analyses are generally biased; averaging the outputs of a model based on a choice of values from a complex joint distribution is not likely to be a good reflection of the true model mean. PSA involves repeatedly sampling parameters from their respective distributions and analysing the resulting model outputs. But how many times should you do this? Most times, an arbitrary number is selected that seems “big enough”, say 1,000 or 10,000. But these simulations themselves exhibit variance; so-called Monte Carlo error. This paper discusses making the choice of the number of simulations more formal by assessing the “convergence” of simulation output.

In the same way as sample sizes are chosen for trials, the number of simulations should provide an adequate level of precision, anything more wastes resources without improving inferences. For example, if the statistic of interest is the net monetary benefit, then we would want the confidence interval (CI) to exclude zero as this should be a sufficient level of certainty for an investment decision. The paper, therefore, proposed conducting a number of simulations, examining the CI for when it is ‘narrow enough’, and conducting further simulations if it is not. However, I see a problem with this proposal: the variance of a statistic from a sequence of simulations itself has variance. The stopping points at which we might check CI are themselves arbitrary: additional simulations can increase the width of the CI as well as reduce them. Consider the following set of simulations from a simple ratio of random variables $ICER = gamma(1,0.01)/normal(0.01,0.01)$:The “stopping rule” therefore proposed doesn’t necessarily indicate “convergence” as a few more simulations could lead to a wider, as well as narrower, CI. The heuristic approach is undoubtedly an improvement on the current way things are usually done, but I think there is scope here for a more rigorous method of assessing convergence in PSA.

Mortality due to low-quality health systems in the universal health coverage era: a systematic analysis of amenable deaths in 137 countries. The Lancet [PubMed] Published 5th September 2018

Richard Horton, the oracular editor-in-chief of the Lancet, tweeted last week:

There is certainly an argument that academic journals are good forums to make advocacy arguments. Who better to interpret the analyses presented in these journals than the authors and audiences themselves? But, without a strict editorial bulkhead between analysis and opinion, we run the risk that the articles and their content are influenced or dictated by the political whims of editors rather than scientific merit. Unfortunately, I think this article is evidence of that.

No-one debates that improving health care quality will improve patient outcomes and experience. It is in the very definition of ‘quality’. This paper aims to estimate the numbers of deaths each year due to ‘poor quality’ in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). The trouble with this is two-fold: given the number of unknown quantities required to get a handle on this figure, the definition of quality notwithstanding, the uncertainty around this figure should be incredibly high (see below); and, attributing these deaths in a causal way to a nebulous definition of ‘quality’ is tenuous at best. The approach of the article is, in essence, to assume that the differences in fatality rates of treatable conditions between LMICs and the best performing health systems on Earth, among people who attend health services, are entirely caused by ‘poor quality’. This definition of quality would therefore seem to encompass low resourcing, poor supply of human resources, a lack of access to medicines, as well as everything else that’s different in health systems. Then, to get to this figure, the authors have multiple sources of uncertainty including:

• Using a range of proxies for health care utilisation;
• Using global burden of disease epidemiology estimates, which have associated uncertainty;
• A number of data slicing decisions, such as truncating case fatality rates;
• Estimating utilisation rates based on a predictive model;
• Estimating the case-fatality rate for non-users of health services based on other estimated statistics.

Despite this, the authors claim to estimate a 95% uncertainty interval with a width of only 300,000 people, with a mean estimate of 5.0 million, due to ‘poor quality’. This seems highly implausible, and yet it is claimed to be a causal effect of an undefined ‘poor quality’. The timing of this article coincides with the Lancet Commission on care quality in LMICs and, one suspects, had it not been for the advocacy angle on care quality, it would not have been published in this journal.

Embedding as a pitfall for survey‐based welfare indicators: evidence from an experiment. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A Published 4th September 2018

Health economists will be well aware of the various measures used to evaluate welfare and well-being. Surveys are typically used that are comprised of questions relating to a number of different dimensions. These could include emotional and social well-being or physical functioning. Similar types of surveys are also used to collect population preferences over states of the world or policy options, for example, Kahneman and Knetsch conducted a survey of WTP for different environmental policies. These surveys can exhibit what is called an ’embedding effect’, which Kahneman and Knetsch described as when the value of a good varies “depending on whether the good is assessed on its own or embedded as part of a more inclusive package.” That is to say that the way people value single dimensional attributes or qualities can be distorted when they’re embedded as part of a multi-dimensional choice. This article reports the results of an experiment involving students who were asked to weight the relative importance of different dimensions of the Better Life Index, including jobs, housing, and income. The randomised treatment was whether they rated ‘jobs’ as a single category, or were presented with individual dimensions, such as the unemployment rate and job security. The experiment shows strong evidence of embedding – the overall weighting substantially differed by treatment. This, the authors conclude, means that the Better Life Index fails to accurately capture preferences and is subject to manipulation should a researcher be so inclined – if you want evidence to say your policy is the most important, just change the way the dimensions are presented.

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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.

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