Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 4th 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.

A qualitative investigation of the health economic impacts of bariatric surgery for obesity and implications for improved practice in health economics. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 1st June 2018

Few would question the ‘economic’ nature of the challenge of obesity. Bariatric surgery is widely recommended for severe cases but, in many countries, the supply is not sufficient to satisfy the demand. In this context, this study explores the value of qualitative research in informing economic evaluation. The authors assert that previous economic evaluations have adopted a relatively narrow focus and thus might underestimate the expected value of bariatric surgery. But rather than going and finding data on what they think might be additional dimensions of value, the authors ask patients. Emotional capital, ‘societal’ (i.e. non-health) impacts, and externalities are identified as theories for the types of value that might be derived from bariatric surgery. These theories were used to guide the development of questions and prompts that were used in a series of 10 semi-structured focus groups. Thematic analysis identified the importance of emotional costs and benefits as part of the ‘socioemotional personal journey’ associated with bariatric surgery. Out-of-pocket costs were also identified as being important, with self-funding being a challenge for some respondents. The information seems useful in a variety of ways. It helps us understand the value of bariatric surgery and how individuals make decisions in this context. This information could be used to determine the structure of economic evaluations or the data that are collected and used. The authors suggest that an EQ-5D bolt-on should be developed for ’emotional capital’ but, given that this ‘theory’ was predefined by the authors and does not arise from the qualitative research as being an important dimension of value alongside the existing EQ-5D dimensions, that’s a stretch.

Developing accessible, pictorial versions of health-related quality-of-life instruments suitable for economic evaluation: a report of preliminary studies conducted in Canada and the United Kingdom. PharmacoEconomics – Open [PubMed] Published 25th May 2018

I’ve been telling people about this study for ages (apologies, authors, if that isn’t something you wanted to read!). In my experience, the need for more (cognitively / communicatively) accessible outcome measures is widely recognised by health researchers working in contexts where this is relevant, such as stroke. If people can’t read or understand the text-based descriptors that make up (for example) the EQ-5D, then we need some alternative format. You could develop an entirely new measure. Or, as the work described in this paper set out to do, you could modify existing measures. There are three descriptive systems described in this study: i) a pictorial EQ-5D-3L by the Canadian team, ii) a pictorial EQ-5D-3L by the UK team, and iii) a pictorial EQ-5D-5L by the UK team. Each uses images to represent the different levels of the different dimensions. For example, the mobility dimension might show somebody walking around unaided, walking with aids, or in bed. I’m not going to try and describe what they all look like, so I’ll just encourage you to take a look at the Supplementary Material (click here to download it). All are described as ‘pilot’ instruments and shouldn’t be picked up and used at this stage. Different approaches were used in the development of the measures, and there are differences between the measures in terms of the images selected and the ways in which they’re presented. But each process referred to conventions in aphasia research, used input from clinicians, and consulted people with aphasia and/or their carers. The authors set out several remaining questions and avenues for future research. The most interesting possibility to most readers will be the notion that we could have a ‘generic’ pictorial format for the EQ-5D, which isn’t aphasia-specific. This will require continued development of the pictorial descriptive systems, and ultimately their validation.

QALYs in 2018—advantages and concerns. JAMA [PubMed] Published 24th May 2018

It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the authors of this article – and indeed all US-based purveyors of economic evaluation in health care. With respect to social judgments about the value of health technologies, the US’s proverbial head remains well and truly buried in the sand. This article serves as a primer and an enticement for the use of QALYs. The ‘concerns’ cited relate almost exclusively to decision rules applied to QALYs, rather than the underlying principles of QALYs, presumably because the authors didn’t feel they could ignore the points made by QALY opponents (even if those arguments are vacuous). What it boils down to is this: trade-offs are necessary, and QALYs can be used to promote value in those trade-offs, so unless you offer some meaningful alternative then QALYs are here to stay. Thankfully, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) has recently added some clout to the undeniable good sense of QALYs, so the future is looking a little brighter. Suck it up, America!

The impact of hospital costing methods on cost-effectiveness analysis: a case study. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 22nd May 2018

Plugging different cost estimates into your cost-effectiveness model could alter the headline results of your evaluation. That might seems obvious, but there are a variety of ways in which the selection of unit costs might be somewhat arbitrary or taken for granted. This study considers three alternative sources of information for hospital-based unit costs for hip fractures in England: (a) spell-level tariffs, (b) finished consultant episode (FCE) reference costs, and (c) spell-level reference costs. Source (b) provides, in theory, a more granular version of (a), describing individual episodes within a person’s hospital stay. Reference costs are estimated on the basis of hospital activity, while tariffs are prices estimated on the basis of historic reference costs. The authors use a previously reported cohort state transition model to evaluate different models of care for hip fracture and explore how the use of the different cost figures affects their results. FCE-level reference costs produced the highest total first-year hospital care costs (£14,440), and spell-level tariffs the lowest (£10,749). The more FCEs within a spell, the greater the discrepancy. This difference in costs affected ICERs, such that the net-benefit-optimising decision would change. The study makes an important point – that selection of unit costs matters. But it isn’t clear why the difference exists. It could just be due to a lack of precision in reference costs in this context (rather than a lack of accuracy, per se), or it could be that reference costs misestimate the true cost of care across the board. Without clear guidance on how to select the most appropriate source of unit costs, these different costing methodologies represent another source of uncertainty in modelling, which analysts should consider and explore.

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

Using HTA and guideline development as a tool for research priority setting the NICE way: reducing research waste by identifying the right research to fund. BMJ Open [PubMed] Published 8th March 2018

As well as the cost-effectiveness of health care, economists are increasingly concerned with the cost-effectiveness of health research. This makes sense, given that both are usually publicly funded and so spending on one (in principle) limits spending on the other. NICE exists in part to prevent waste in the provision of health care – seeking to maximise benefit. In this paper, the authors (all current or ex-employees of NICE) consider the extent to which NICE processes are also be used to prevent waste in health research. The study focuses on the processes underlying NICE guideline development and HTA, and the work by NICE’s Science Policy and Research (SP&R) programme. Through systematic review and (sometimes) economic modelling, NICE guidelines identify research needs, and NICE works with the National Institute for Health Research to get their recommended research commissioned, with some research fast-tracked as ‘NICE Key Priorities’. Sometimes, it’s also necessary to prioritise research into methodological development, and NICE have conducted reviews to address this, with the Internal Research Advisory Group established to ensure that methodological research is commissioned. The paper also highlights the roles of other groups such as the Decision Support Unit, Technical Support Unit and External Assessment Centres. This paper is useful for two reasons. First, it gives a clear and concise explanation of NICE’s processes with respect to research prioritisation, and maps out the working groups involved. This will provide researchers with an understanding of how their work fits into this process. Second, the paper highlights NICE’s current research priorities and provides insight into how these develop. This could be helpful to researchers looking to develop new ideas and proposals that will align with NICE’s priorities.

The impact of the minimum wage on health. International Journal of Health Economics and Management [PubMed] Published 7th March 2018

The minimum wage is one of those policies that is so far-reaching, and with such ambiguous implications for different people, that research into its impact can deliver dramatically different conclusions. This study uses American data and takes advantage of the fact that different states have different minimum wage levels. The authors try to look at a broad range of mechanisms by which minimum wage can affect health. A major focus is on risky health behaviours. The study uses data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which includes around 300,000 respondents per year across all states. Relevant variables from these data characterise smoking, drinking, and fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as obesity. There are also indicators of health care access and self-reported health. The authors cut their sample to include 21-64-year-olds with no more than a high school degree. Difference-in-differences are estimated by OLS according to individual states’ minimum wage changes. As is often the case for minimum wage studies, the authors find several non-significant effects: smoking and drinking don’t seem to be affected. Similarly, there isn’t much of an impact on health care access. There seems to be a small positive impact of minimum wage on the likelihood of being obese, but no impact on BMI. I’m not sure how to interpret that, but there is also evidence that a minimum wage increase leads to a reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption, which adds credence to the obesity finding. The results also demonstrate that a minimum wage increase can reduce the number of days that people report to be in poor health. But generally – on aggregate – there isn’t much going on at all. So the authors look at subgroups. Smoking is found to increase (and BMI decrease) with minimum wage for younger non-married white males. Obesity is more likely to be increased by minimum wage hikes for people who are white or married, and especially for those in older age groups. Women seem to benefit from fewer days with mental health problems. The main concerns identified in this paper are that minimum wage increases could increase smoking in young men and could reduce fruit and veg consumption. But I don’t think we should overstate it. There’s a lot going on in the data, and though the authors do a good job of trying to identify the effects, other explanations can’t be excluded. Minimum wage increases probably don’t have a major direct impact on health behaviours – positive or negative – but policymakers should take note of the potential value in providing public health interventions to those groups of people who are likely to be affected by the minimum wage.

Aligning policy objectives and payment design in palliative care. BMC Palliative Care [PubMed] Published 7th March 2018

Health care at the end of life – including palliative care – presents challenges in evaluation. The focus is on improving patients’ quality of life, but it’s also about satisfying preferences for processes of care, the experiences of carers, and providing a ‘good death’. And partly because these things can be difficult to measure, it can be difficult to design payment mechanisms to achieve desirable outcomes. Perhaps that’s why there is no current standard approach to funding for palliative care, with a lot of variation between countries, despite the common aspiration for universality. This paper tackles the question of payment design with a discussion of the literature. Traditionally, palliative care has been funded by block payments, per diems, or fee-for-service. The author starts with the acknowledgement that there are two challenges to ensuring value for money in palliative care: moral hazard and adverse selection. Providers may over-supply because of fee-for-service funding arrangements, or they may ‘cream-skim’ patients. Adverse selection may arise in an insurance-based system, with demand from high-risk people causing the market to fail. These problems could potentially be solved by capitation-based payments and risk adjustment. The market could also be warped by blunt eligibility restrictions and funding caps. Another difficulty is the challenge of achieving allocative efficiency between home-based and hospital-based services, made plain by the fact that, in many countries, a majority of people die in hospital despite a preference for dying at home. The author describes developments (particularly in Australia) in activity-based funding for palliative care. An interesting proposal – though not discussed in enough detail – is that payments could be made for each death (per mortems?). Capitation-based payment models are considered and the extent to which pay-for-performance could be incorporated is also discussed – the latter being potentially important in achieving those process outcomes that matter so much in palliative care. Yet another challenge is the question of when palliative care should come into play, because, in some cases, it’s a matter of sooner being better, because the provision of palliative care can give rise to less costly and more preferred treatment pathways. Thus, palliative care funding models will have implications for the funding of acute care. Throughout, the paper includes examples from different countries, along with a wealth of references to dig into. Helpfully, the author explicitly states in a table the models that different settings ought to adopt, given their prevailing model. As our population ages and the purse strings tighten, this is a discussion we can expect to be having more and more.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 24th July 2017

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.

Ten years after the financial crisis: the long reach of austerity and its global impacts on health. Social Science & Medicine [PubMedPublished 22nd June 2017

The subject of austerity and its impact on health has generated its own subgenre in the academic literature. We have covered a number of papers on these journal round-ups on this topic, which, given the nature of economic papers, are generally quantitative in nature. However, while quantitative studies are necessary for generation of knowledge of the social world, they are not sufficient. At aggregate levels, quantitative studies may often rely on a black box approach. We may reasonably conclude a policy caused a change in some population-level indicator on the basis of a causal inference type paper, but we often need other types of evidence to answer why or how this occurred. A realist philosophy of social science may see this as a process of triangulation; at the very least it’s a process of abduction to develop theory that best explains what we observe. In clinical research, Bradford-Hill’s famous criteria can be used as a heuristic for causal inference: a cause can be attributed to an effect if it demonstrates a number of criteria including dose-response and reproducibility. For social science, we can conceive of a similar set of criteria. Effects must follow causes, there has to be a plausible mechanism, and so forth. This article in Social Science & Medicine introduces a themed issue on austerity and its effects on health. The issue contains a number of papers examining experiences of people with respect to austerity and how these may translate into changes in health. One example is a study in a Mozambican hospital and how health outcomes change in response to continued restructuring programs due to budget shortfalls. Another study explores the narrative of austerity in Guyana and it has long been sold as necessary for future benefits which never actually materialise. It is not immediately clear how austerity is being defined here, but it is presumably something like ‘a fiscal contraction that causes a significant increase in aggregate unemployment‘. In any case, it makes for interesting reading and complements economics research on the topic. It is a refreshing change from the bizarre ravings we featured a couple of weeks ago!

Home-to-home time — measuring what matters to patients and payers. New England Journal of Medicine [PubMedPublished 6th July 2017

Length of hospital stay is often used as a metric to evaluate hospital performance: for a given severity of illness, a shorter length of hospital stay may suggest higher quality care. However, hospitals can of course game these metrics, and they are further complicated by survival bias. Hospitals are further incentivised to reduce length of stay. For example, the move from per diem reimbursement to per episode had the effect of dramatically reducing length of stay in hospitals. As a patient recovers, they may no longer need hospital based care, the care they require may be adequately provided in other institutional settings. Although, in the UK there has been a significant issue with many patients convalescing in hospital for extended periods as they wait for a place in residential care homes. Thus from the perspective of the whole health system, length of stay in hospital may no longer be the right metric to evaluate performance. This article makes this argument and provides some interesting statistics. For example, between 2004 and 2011 the average length of stay in hospital among Medicare beneficiaries in the US decreased from 6.3 to 5.7 days; post-acute care stays increased from 4.8 to 6.0 days. Thus, the total time in care actually increased from 11.1 to 11.7 days over this period. In the post-acute care setting, Medicare still reimburses providers on a per diem basis, so total payments adjusted for inflation also increased. This article makes the argument that we need to structure incentives and reimbursement schemes across the whole care system if we want to ensure efficiency and equity.

The population health benefits of a healthy lifestyle: life expectancy increased and onset of disability delayed. Health Affairs [PubMedPublished July 2017

Obesity and tobacco smoking increase the risk of ill health and in so doing reduce life expectancy. The same goes for alcohol, although the relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of illness is less well understood. One goal of public health policy is to mitigate these risks. One successful way of communicating the risks of different behaviours is as changes to life expectancy, or conversely ‘effective age‘. From a different perspective, understanding how different risk factors affect life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy is important for cost-benefit analyses of different public health interventions. This study estimates life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy associated with smoking, obesity, and moderate alcohol consumption using the US-based Health and Retirement Study. However, I struggle to see how this study adds much; while it communicates its results well, it is, in essence, a series of univariate comparisons followed by a multivariate comparison. This has been done widely before, such as here and here. Nevertheless, the results reinforce those previous studies. For example, obesity reduced disability-free life expectancy by 3 years for men and 6 years for women.

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