Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 19th August 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.

Paying for kidneys? A randomized survey and choice experiment. American Economic Review [RePEc] Published August 2019

This paper starts with a quote from Alvin Roth about ‘repugnant transactions’, of which markets for organs provide a prime example. This idea of ‘repugnant transactions’ has been hijacked by some pop economists to represent the stupid opinions of non-economists. If you ask me, markets for organs aren’t repugnant, they just seem like a very bad idea in terms of both efficiency and equity. But it doesn’t matter what I think; it matters what the people of the United States think.

The authors of this study conducted an online survey with a representative sample of 2,666 Americans. Each respondent was randomised to evaluate one of eight systems compared with the current system. The eight systems differed with respect to i) cash or non-cash compensation of ii) different sizes ($30,000 or $100,000), iii) paid by either a public agency or the organ recipient. Participants made five binary choices that differed according to the gain – in transplants generated – associated with the new system. Half of the participants were also asked to express moral judgements.

Both the system features (e.g. who pays) and the outcomes of the new system influenced people’s choices. Broadly speaking, the results suggest that people aren’t opposed to donors being paid, but are opposed to patients paying. (Remember, we’re talking about the US here!). Around 21% of respondents opposed payment no matter what, 46% were in favour no matter what, and 18% were sensitive to the gain in the number of transplants. A 10% point increase in transplants resulted in a 2.6% point increase in support. Unsurprisingly, individuals’ moral judgements were predictive of the attitudes they expressed, particularly with respect to fairness. The authors describe their results as exhibiting ‘strong polarisation’, which is surely inevitable for questions that involve moral judgement.

Being in AER, this is a long meandering paper with extensive analyses and thoroughly reported results. There’s lots of information and findings that I can’t share here. It’s a valuable study with plenty of food for thought, but I can’t help but think that it is, methodologically, a bit weak. If we want to understand the different views in society, surely some Q methodology would be more useful than a basic online survey. And if we want to elicit stated preferences, surely a discrete choice experiment with a well-thought-out efficient design would give us more meaningful results.

Estimating local need for mental healthcare to inform fair resource allocation in the NHS in England: cross-sectional analysis of national administrative data linked at person level. The British Journal of Psychiatry [PubMed] Published 8th August 2019

The need to fairly (and efficiently) allocate NHS resources across the country played an important part in the birth of health economics in the UK, and resulted in resource allocation formulas. Since 1996 there has been a separate formula for mental health services, which is periodically updated. This study describes the work undertaken for the latest update.

The model is based on predicting service use and total mental health care costs observed in 2015 from predictors in the years 2013-2014, to inform allocations in 2019-2024. Various individual-level data sources available to the NHS were used for 43.7 million people registered with a GP practice and over the age of 20. The cost per patient who used mental health services ranged from £94 to over one million, averaging around £2,000. The predictor variables included individual indicators such as age, sex, ethnicity, physical diagnoses, and household type (e.g. number of adults and kids). The model also used variables observed at the local or GP practice level, such as the proportion of people receiving out-of-work benefits and the distance from the mental health trust. All of this got plugged into a good old OLS regression. From individual-level predictions, the researchers created aggregated indices of need for each clinical commission group (CCG).

A lot went into the model, which explained 99% of the variation in costs between CCGs. A key way in which this model differs from previous versions is that it relies on individual-level indicators rather than those observed at the level of GP practice or CCG. There was a lot of variation in the CCG need indices, ranging from 0.65 for Surrey Heath to 1.62 for Southwark, where 1.00 is the average. You’ll need to check the online appendices for your own CCG’s level of need (Lewisham: 1.52). As one might expect, the researchers observed a strong correlation between a CCG’s need index and the CCG’s area’s level of deprivation. Compared with previous models, this new model indicates a greater allocation of resources to more deprived and older populations.

Measuring, valuing and including forgone childhood education and leisure time costs in economic evaluation: methods, challenges and the way forward. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 7th August 2019

I’m a ‘societal perspective’ sceptic, not because I don’t care about non-health outcomes (though I do care less) but because I think it’s impossible to capture everything that is of value to society, and that capturing just a few things will introduce a lot of bias and noise. I would also deny that time has any intrinsic value. But I do think we need to do a better job of evaluating interventions for children. So I expected this paper to provide me with a good mix of satisfaction and exasperation.

Health care often involves a loss of leisure or work time, which can constitute an opportunity cost and is regularly included in economic evaluations – usually proxied by wages – for adults. The authors outline the rationale for considering ‘time-related’ opportunity costs in economic evaluations and describe the nature of lost time for children. For adults, the distinction is generally between paid or unpaid work and leisure time. Arguably, this distinction is not applicable to children. Two literature reviews are described. One looked at economic evaluations in the context of children’s health, to see how researchers have valued lost time. The other sought to identify ideas about the value of lost time for children from a broader literature.

The authors do a nice job of outlining how difficult it is to capture non-health-related costs and outcomes in the context of childhood. There is a handful of economic evaluations that have tried to measure and value children’s foregone time. The valuations generally focussed on the costs of childcare rather than the costs to the child, though one looked at the rate of return to education. There wasn’t a lot to go off in the non-health literature, which mostly relates to adults. From what there is, the recommendation is to capture absence from formal education and foregone leisure time. Of course, consideration needs to be given to the importance of lost time and thus the value of capturing it in research. We also need to think about the risk of double counting. When it comes to measurement, we can probably use similar methods as we would for adults, such as diaries. But we need very different approaches to valuation. On this, the authors found very little in the way of good examples to follow. More research needed.

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Brendan Collins’s journal round-up for 22nd July 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.

Making hard choices in local public health spending with a cost-benefit analysis approach. Frontiers in Public Health Published 29th June 2019

In this round-up I have chosen three papers which look broadly at public health economics.

While NHS healthcare funding has been relatively preserved in the UK (in financial terms at least, though not keeping up with demographic change), funding for local government public health departments has been cut. These departments commission early years services, smoking cessation, drug and alcohol treatment, sexual health, and lots of other services. A recent working paper suggests that marginal changes in Public Health funding produce a more favourable ICER than changes in NHS funding.

This is a neat paper looking at the cost-benefit for a subset of £14 million investment in public health programmes in Dorset, a county on the south coast of England, whose population is slightly older and more affluent than the England average. I try to go to Dorset every year, it has beautiful beaches with traditional Punch and Judy shows, and nice old towns where you can get out on a mackerel fishing trip.

This paper looks at the potential financial savings for each public health programme across different sectors of the economy. One of the big issues with public health as opposed to clinical interventions is the cross sector flow problem – you spend money on drug and alcohol treatment, but the majority of benefits are through prevented crime; or you prevent teenage pregnancy, and a lot of the benefits are to the welfare system (because women delay pregnancy until they are more likely to be in a stable relationship and working). This makes it hard when local councillors might say, ‘what’s in it for us?’

Figure 2 in this paper shows the cross sector flow issue clearly – the spend comes from local authority public health, but 94% of the financial benefits are in the NHS.

I think this study has a good blueprint that other local authorities could follow. The study applies an optimism bias reduction, so it is not just assuming that programmes will be as effective as the research evidence suggests. This is important as there may be a big drop off in effectiveness when something is implemented locally. Of course, sometimes local implementation might be more effective. But it would be nice to see this kind of study carried out with more real-world data. Although the optimism bias reduction makes it less likely to overestimate the cost-benefit, it doesn’t necessarily make the estimate any more precise. National outcomes data collection for public health programmes is weak or absent; better data collection might mean more evidence that prevention interventions provide value for money.

Impact of sugar‐sweetened beverage taxes on purchases and dietary intake: systematic review and meta‐analysis. Obesity Reviews [PubMed] Published 19th June 2019

A lot of health economics focuses on healthcare interventions. But, upstream, structural policy interventions have the capacity to be a lot more cost effective in preventing ill health. Sugary drinks (sugar sweetened beverages – SSBs) are a source of excess empty calories and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and early death. One of the first pieces of work I did as a grown-up academic was looking at a sugary drinks tax, which resulted in me getting up early one day and seeing this. At the time I thought it had roughly zero chance of being implemented. But the sugary drinks industry levy (SDIL) was implemented in the UK in April last year, and had a huge effect in terms of motivating the industry to reformulate below the thresholds of 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml. Milk-based drinks like Frijj and Yazoo are exempt and still often have nearly 10g sugar per 100ml so there has been talk of extending the tax to these drinks. But Boris Johnson, the likely next UK Prime Minister, has come out against these ‘nanny state’ ‘sin taxes’ and said he will review them, seemingly despite there being a large scale evaluation of the SDIL, and a growing evidence base. There is a good twitter thread on this by Adam Briggs here.

Policies like the SDIL rely on price elasticity of demand (PED). But this PED varies depending, for instance, on how addictive something is and the availability of substitutes. For tobacco, because it is addictive, a 10% price increase might only produce a 5% reduction in demand.

This systematic review and meta-analysis looked at data from 17 studies in 6 jurisdictions and found that, on average, sugar consumption is unit elastic – a 10% price increase produces a 10% reduction in purchases. However, there was considerable variation between studies. The authors designed a bespoke risk of bias tool for this, as the traditional tools used for health interventions did not include all of the potential biases for an SSB tax evaluation; this checklist may be useful for future analyses of similar policies.

If the SSB duty produced a unit elastic response in the UK, it means that people aren’t spending more on SSBs, they are merely buying less of something that they don’t need and which damages their health. And maybe a few people, over many years, consume a bit less sugar, don’t get type 2 diabetes, don’t have to give up work, and are actually better off and can provide for their families for a bit longer. Of course, in the UK the picture is complex because of the different tiers of the duty, but reformulation has meant that people are consuming less sugar even if they don’t reduce their sugary drink consumption. Also, the revenue from the SDIL is spent on healthier schools, so it could be argued that the policy is a win-win.

The cost of not breastfeeding: global results from a new tool. Health Policy & Planning [PubMed] Published 24th June 2019

This study looks at the potential worldwide cost savings if breastfeeding rates were improved. Breastfeeding prevents cases of diarrhoea, obesity, maternal cancer, and other diseases and adverse outcomes. Low breastfeeding rates are a big problem in developing countries where formula costs a huge proportion of income (nearly 20% of average household income in India and Pakistan according to this paper) and water supplies may be contaminated. This study includes healthcare costs, and economic losses from early deaths and reduced IQ through sub-optimal breastfeeding, which total $341 billion per year worldwide.

The authors have said there is also going to be an online, and Excel-based, results tool.

I love reading such ambitious studies that cover the whole world. Producing worldwide estimates for costs is a difficult exercise and can have a danger of losing meaning. For instance, in developing countries, medical costs may be very low if health coverage is very sparse. If a country doesn’t spend anything on healthcare and you measure public health interventions in healthcare cost savings, then it looks like these public health interventions are not worth doing. That is why it is sometimes better to focus on DALYs (and potentially put a financial value on them, although this can be controversial) rather than financial costs. The study found the biggest absolute costs of not breastfeeding were in North America ($115bn), while biggest costs as a proportion of gross national income (GNI) were for sub-Saharan Africa, where not breastfeeding cost 2.6% of GNI.

It looks like two out of the three authors are men. Is there a problem with men being pro-breastfeeding? Why should a man tell women what to do with their bodies? Women shouldn’t feel stigmatised about their infant feeding choices. But for me it is not about telling women what to do. It is making sure the structures and social norms are there to support breastfeeding and that formula companies are regulated in how they market themselves and their products. Maybe men not caring enough about breastfeeding is what has got us to where we are now. 

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Rachel Houten’s journal round-up for 22nd April 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.

To HTA or not to HTA: identifying the factors influencing the rapid review outcome in Ireland. Value in Health [PubMed] Published 6th March 2019

National health services are constantly under pressure to provide access to new medicines as soon as marketing authorisation is granted. The NCPE in the Republic of Ireland has a rapid review process for selecting medicines that require a full health technology assessment (HTA), and the rest, approximately 45%, are able to be reimbursed without such an in-depth analysis.

Formal criteria do not exist. However, it has previously been suggested that the robustness of clinical evidence of at least equivalence; a drug that costs the same or less; an annual (or estimated) budget impact of less than €0.75 million to €1 million; and the ability of the current health systems to restrict usage are some of what is considered when making the decision.

The authors of this paper used the allocation over the past eight years to explore the factors that drive the decision to embark on a full HTA. They found, unsurprisingly, that first-in-class medicines are more likely to require an HTA as too are those with orphan status. Interestingly, the clinical area influenced the requirement for a full HTA, but the authors consider all of these factors to indicate that high-cost drugs are more likely to require a full assessment. Drug cost information is not publicly available and so the authors used the data available on the Scottish Medicine Consortium website as a surrogate for costs in Ireland. In doing so, they were able to establish a relationship between the cost per person for each drug and the likelihood of the drug having a full HTA, further supporting the idea that more expensive drugs are more likely to require HTA. On the face of it, this seems eminently sensible. However, my concern is that, in a system that is designed to deliberately measure cost per unit of health care (usually QALYs), there is the potential for lower-cost but ineffective drugs to become commonplace while more expensive medicines are subject to more rigor.

The paper provides some insight into what drives a decision to undertake a full HTA in Ireland. The NICE fast-track appraisal system operates as an opt-in system where manufacturers can ask to follow this shorter appraisal route if their drug is likely to produce an ICER of £10,000 or less. As my day job is for an Evidence Review Group (opinions my own), how things are done elsewhere – unsurprisingly – captured my attention. The desire to speed up the HTA process is obvious but the most appropriate mechanisms in which to do so are far from it. Whether or not the same decision is ultimately made is what concerns me.

NHS joint working with industry is out of public sight. BMJ [PubMed] Published 27th March 2019

This paper suggests that ‘joint working arrangements’ – a government-supported initiative between pharmaceutical companies and the NHS – are not being implemented according to guidelines on transparency. These arrangements are designed to promote collaborative research between the NHS and industry and help advance NHS provision of services.

The authors used freedom of information requests to obtain details on how many trusts were involved in joint working arrangements in 2016 and 2017. The declarations of payments made by drug companies are disclosed but the corresponding information from trusts is less readily accessible, and in some cases access to any details was prevented. Theoretically, the joint working arrangements are supposed to be void of any commercial influence on what is prescribed, but my thoughts are echoed in this paper when it asks “what’s in it for the private sector?” The sheer fact that some NHS trusts were unwilling to provide the BMJ with the information requested due to ‘commercial interest’ rings huge alarm bells.

I’m not completely cynical of these arrangements in principle, though, and the paper cites a couple of projects that involved building new facilities for age-related macular generation, which likely offer benefits to patients, and possibly much faster than could have been achieved with NHS funding alone. Some of the arrangements intend to push the implementation of national guidance, which, as a small cog in the guidance generation machine, I unashamedly (and predictably) think is a good thing.

Does it matter to us? As economists, it means that any work based on national practice and costs is likely to be unrepresentative of what actually happens. This, however, has always been the case to some extent, with variations in local service provision and the negotiation power of trusts with large volumes of patients. A national register of the arrangements would have the potential to feed into economic analysis, even if just as a statement of awareness.

Can the NHS survive without getting into bed with industry? Probably not. I think the paper does a good job of presenting the arguments on all sides and pushing for increasing availability of what is happening.

Estimating joint health condition utility values. Value in Health [PubMed] Published 22nd February 2019

I’m really interested in how this area is developing. Multi-morbidity is the norm, especially as we age. Single condition models are criticised for their lack of representation of patients in the real world. Appropriately estimating the quality of life of people with several chronic conditions, when only individual condition data are available, is incredibly difficult.

In this paper, parametric and non-parametric methods were tested on a dataset from a large primary care patient survey in the UK. The multiplicative approach was the best performing for two conditions. When more than two conditions were considered, the linear index (which incorporates additive, multiplicative, and minimum models with the use of linear regression and parameter weights derived from the underlying data) achieved the best results.

Including long-term mental health within the co-morbidities for which utility was estimated produced biased estimates. The authors discuss some possible explanations for this, including the fact that the anxiety and depression question in the EQ-5D is the only one which directly maps to an individual condition, and that mental health may have a causal effect on physical health. This is a fascinating finding, which has left me somewhat scratching my head as to how this oddity could be addressed and if separate methods of estimation will need to be used for any population with multi-morbidity including mental health conditions.

It did make me wonder if more precise EQ-5D data could be helpful to uncover the true interrelationships between joint health conditions and quality of life. The EQ-5D asks patients to think about their health state ‘today’. Although the primary care dataset used includes 16 chronic health conditions, it doesn’t, as far as I know, contain any information on the symptoms apparent on the day of quality of life assessment, which could be flaring or absent at any given time. This is a common problem with the EQ-5D and I don’t think a readily available data source of this type exists, so it’s a thought on ideals. Unsurprisingly, the more joint health conditions to be considered, the larger the error in terms of estimation from individual conditions. This may be due to the increasing likelihood of overlap in the symptoms experienced across conditions and thus a violation of the assumption that quality of life for an individual condition is independent of any other condition.

Whether the methodology remains robust for populations outside of the UK or for other measures of utility would need to be tested, and the authors are keen to highlight the need for caution before running away and using the methods verbatim. The paper does present a nice summary of the evidence to date in this area, what the authors did, and what it adds to the topic, so worth a read.

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