Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 3rd December 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.

A framework for conducting economic evaluations alongside natural experiments. Social Science & Medicine Published 27th November 2018

I feel like Social Science & Medicine is publishing some excellent health economics papers lately and this is another example. Natural experiment methods, like instrumental variables, difference in difference, and propensity matching, are increasingly used to evaluate public health policy interventions. This paper provides a review and a framework for how to incorporate economic evaluation alongside this. And even better, it has a checklist! It goes into some detail in describing each item in the checklist which I think will be really useful. A couple of the items seemed a bit peculiar to me, like talking about “Potential behavioural responses (e.g. ‘nudge effects’)” – I would prefer a more general term like causal mechanism. And it has multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) as a potential method. I love MCDA but I think that using MCDA would surely require a whole new set of items on the checklist, for instance, to record how MCDA weights have been decided. (For me, saying that CEA is insufficient so we should use MCDA instead is like saying I find it hard to put IKEA furniture together so I will make my own furniture from scratch.) My hope with checklists is that they actually improve practice, rather than just being used in a post hoc way to include a few caveats and excuses in papers.

Autonomy, accountability, and ambiguity in arm’s-length meta-governance: the case of NHS England. Public Management Review Published 18th November 2018

It has been said that NICE in England serves a purpose of insulating politicians from the fallout of difficult investment decisions, for example recommending that people with mild Alzheimers disease do not get certain drugs. When the coalition government gained power in the UK in 2010, there was initially talk that NICE’s role of approving drugs may be reduced. But the government may have realised that NICE serve a useful role of being a focus of public and media anger when new drugs are rejected on cost-effectiveness grounds. And so it may be with NHS England (NHSE), which according to this paper, as an arms-length body (ALB), has powers that exceed what was initially planned.

This paper uses meta-governance theory, examining different types of control mechanisms and the relationship between the ALB and the sponsor (Department for Health and Social Care), and how they impact on autonomy and accountability. It suggests that NHSE is operating at a macro, policy-making level, rather than an operational, implementation level. Policy changes from NHSE are presented by ministers as coming ‘from’ the NHS but, in reality, the NHS is much bigger than NHSE. NHSE was created to take political interference out of decision-making and let civil servants get on with things. But before reading this paper, it had not occurred to me how much power NHSE had accrued, and how this may create difficulties in terms of accountability for reasonableness. For instance, NHSE have a very complicated structure and do not publish all of their meeting minutes so it is difficult to understand how investment decisions are made. It may be that the changes that have happened in the NHS since 2012 were intended to involve healthcare professionals more in local investment decisions. But actually, a lot of power in terms of shaping the balance of hierarchies, markets and networks has ended up in NHSE, sitting in a hinterland between politicians in Whitehall and local NHS organisations. With a new NHS Plan reportedly delayed because of Brexit chaos, it will be interesting to see what this plan says about accountability.

How health policy shapes healthcare sector productivity? Evidence from Italy and UK. Health Policy [PubMed] Published 2nd November 2018

This paper starts with an interesting premise: the English and Italian state healthcare systems (the NHS and the SSN) are quite similar (which I didn’t know before). But the two systems have had different priorities in the time period from 2004-2011. England focused on increasing activity, reducing waiting times and quality improvements while Italy focused on reducing hospital beds as well as reducing variation and unnecessary treatments. This paper finds that productivity increased more quickly in the NHS than the SSN from 2004-2011. This paper is ambitious in its scope and the data the authors have used. The model uses input-specific price deflators, so it includes the fact that healthcare inputs increase in price faster than other industries but treats this as exogenous to the production function. This price inflation may be because around 75% of costs are staff costs, and wage inflation in other industries produces wage inflation in the NHS. It may be interesting in future to analyse to what extent the rate of inflation for healthcare is inevitable and if it is linked in some way to the inputs and outputs. We often hear that productivity in the NHS has not increased as much as other industries, so it is perhaps reassuring to read a paper that says the NHS has performed better than a similar health system elsewhere.

Credits

Sofosbuvir: a fork in the road for NICE?

NICE recently completed their appraisal of the hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir. However, as has been reported in the media, NHS England will not be complying with the guidance within the normal time period.

The cost of a 24 week course of sofosbuvir is almost £70,000. Around 160,000 people are chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus in England, so that adds up to a fair chunk of the NHS budget. Yet the drug does appear to be cost-effective. ICERs differ for different patient groups, but for most scenarios the ICER is below £30,000 per QALY. In the NICE documentation, a number of reasons are listed for NHS England’s decision. But what they ultimately boil down to – it seems – is affordability.

The problem is that NICE doesn’t account for affordability in its guidance. One need only consider that the threshold has remained unchanged for over a decade to see that this is true. How to solve this problem really depends on what we believe the job of NICE should be. Should it be NICE’s job to consider what should and shouldn’t be purchased within the existing health budget? Or, rather, should it be NICE’s job simply to figure out what is ‘worth it’ to society, regardless of affordability? This isn’t the first time that an NHS organisation has appealed against a NICE decision in some way. Surely, it won’t be the last. These instances represent a failure in the system, not least on grounds of accountability for reasonableness. Here I’d like to suggest that NICE has 3 options for dealing with this problem; one easy, one hard and one harder.

The easy option

The simplest option involves the fewest changes to the NICE process. Indeed, it would involve doing pretty much what it does now, only with slightly different (and more transparent) reasoning. In this scenario NICE would explicitly ignore the problem of affordability. Its remit would cease to be the consideration of optimality on a national level and it would ignore the budget constraint. NICE’s remit would become figuring out which health technologies are ‘worth it’; i.e. would the public be willing to purchase a given technology with a given health benefit at a given cost. To some extent, therefore, NICE would become a threshold-setter. The threshold should be based on some definition of a social value of a QALY. This is the easy option for NICE as setting the threshold would be the only additional task to what they currently do. Its threshold might not change all that much, or may be a little higher.

However, even if NICE denies responsibility, clearly someone does need to take account of affordability. Given the events associated with sofosbuvir it seems that this could become the work of NHS England. NHS England could use a threshold based on the budget and current QALY-productivity in the NHS. One might expect NHS England to be in a better position to identify the local evidence necessary to determine appropriate thresholds, which would likely be much lower than NICE’s. It would also be responsible for disinvestment decisions. Given the nationwide remit of NHS England, this would still prevent postcode lotteries. The implication here, of course, is that NICE and NHS England might use different thresholds. Any number of decision rules could be used to determine the result for technologies falling between the two. Maybe this is where considerations for innovation or non-health-related equity concerns belong. It seems probable to me that NICE’s threshold would be higher than NHS England’s, in which case NICE would effectively be advising increases in the health budget. This is something that I quite like the sound of.

The hard option

Personally, I believe that NICE’s failure to justify their threshold(s) is quite a serious failing and undermines the enterprise. The hard option will involve them defining it properly, informed by current levels of QALY-productivity in the NHS. Thus properly adopting a position as a threshold-searcher, and doing the job prescribed to NHS England in the ‘easy option’. NICE guidance would therefore be informed by the current health budget and affordability, and therefore must include guidance on disinvestment. The first stage of this work has already been done. The disinvestment guidance would be the hard part. This argument has already been much discussed, and seems to be what many economists support.

I don’t find this argument entirely compelling, at least not as a solution to the affordability problem. To solve this issue NICE would need to regularly review the current threshold and revise it in light of current productivity and the prevailing health budget. It has no experience of doing this. I believe the task could be more effectively carried out by commissioning organisations (such as NHS England), who are in a better position to oversee the collection of the appropriate data and would have a public responsibility to do so. It might also be politically useful if decisions about affordability were made independently of decisions about value.

The harder option

The harder option is for there to be a paradigm shift in the way NICE – and health economics more generally – operates. It could involve programme budgeting and marginal analysis, or the Birch and Gafni approach. This might just be the best option, but it seems unlikely to happen nationally any time soon.

It’s possible that more cost-effective but unaffordable drugs are in the pipeline. Failure to address the affordability problem soon could seriously undermine NICE.

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1291123