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.



Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 24th April 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.

The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S. Economics & Human Biology Published 19th April 2017

It’s an old stereotype, that people of lower socioeconomic status eat a lot of fast food, and that this contributes to poorer nutritional intake and therefore poorer health. As somebody with a deep affection for Gregg’s pasties and Pot Noodles, I’ve never really bought into the idea. Mainly because a lot of fast food isn’t particularly cheap. And anyway, what about all those cheesy paninis that the middle classes are chowing down on in Starbuck’s? Plus, wouldn’t the more well-off folk have a higher opportunity cost of time that would make fast food more attractive? Happily for me, this paper provides some evidence to support these notions. The study uses 3 recent waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, with 8136 participants born between 1957 and 1964. The authors test for an income gradient in adult fast food consumption, as well as any relationship to wealth. I think that makes it extra interesting because wealth is likely to be more indicative of social class (which is probably what people really think about when it comes to the stereotype). The investigation of wealth also sets it apart from previous studies, which report mixed findings for the income gradient. The number of times people consumed fast food in the preceding 7 days is modelled as a function of price, time requirement, preferences and monetary resources (income and wealth). The models included estimators for these predictors and a number of health behaviour indicators and demographic variables. Logistic models distinguish fast food eaters and OLS and negative binomial models estimate how often fast food is eaten. 79% ate fast food at least once, and 23% were frequent fast food eaters. In short, there isn’t much variation by income and wealth. What there is suggests an inverted U-shape pattern, which is more pronounced when looking at income than wealth. The regression results show that there isn’t much of a relationship between wealth and the number of times a respondent ate fast food. Income is positively related to the number of fast food meals eaten. But other variables were far more important. Living in a central city and being employed were associated with greater fast food consumption, while a tendency to check ingredients was associated with a lower probability of eating fast food. The study has some important policy implications, particularly as our preconceptions may mean that interventions are targeting the wrong groups of people.

Views of the UK general public on important aspects of health not captured by EQ-5D. The Patient [PubMed] Published 13th April 2017

The notion that the EQ-5D might not reflect important aspects of health-related quality of life is a familiar one for those of us working on trial-based analyses. Some of the claims we hear might just be special pleading, but it’s hard to deny at least some truth. What really matters – if we’re trying to elicit societal values – is what the public thinks. This study tries to find out. Face-to-face interviews were conducted in which people completed time trade-off and discrete choice experiment tasks for EQ-5D-5L states. These were followed by a set of questions about the value of alternative upper anchors (e.g. ‘full health’, ‘11111’) and whether respondents believed that relevant health or quality of life domains were missing from the EQ-5D questionnaire. This paper focuses on the aspects of health that people identified as being missing, using a content analysis framework. There were 436 respondents, about half of whom reported being in a 11111 EQ-5D state. 41% of participants considered the EQ-5D questionnaire to be missing some important aspect of health. The authors identified 22 (!) different themes and attached people’s responses to these themes. Sensory deprivation and mental health were the two biggies, with many more responses than other themes. 50 people referred to vision, hearing or other sensory loss. 29 referred to mental health generally while 28 referred to specific mental health problems. This study constitutes a guide for future research and for the development of the EQ-5D and other classification systems. Obviously, the objective of the EQ-5D is not to reflect all domains. And it may be that the public’s suggestions – verbatim, at least – aren’t sensible. 10 people stated ‘cancer’, for example. But the importance of mental health and sensory deprivation in describing the evaluative space does warrant further investigation.

Re-thinking ‘The different perspectives that can be used when eliciting preferences in health’. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 21st March 2017

Pedantry is a virtue when it comes to valuing health states, which is why you’ll often find me banging on about the need for clarity. And why I like this paper. The authors look at a 2003 article by Dolan and co that outlined the different perspectives that health preference researchers ought to be using (though notably aren’t) when presenting elicitation questions to respondents. Dolan and co defined 6 perspectives along two dimensions: preferences (personal, social and socially-inclusive personal) and context (ex ante and ex post). This paper presents the argument that Dolan and co’s framework is incomplete. The authors throw new questions into the mix regarding who the user of treatment is, who the payer is and who is assessing the value, as well as introducing consideration of the timing of illness and the nature of risk. This gives rise to a total of 23 different perspectives along the dimensions of preferences (personal, social, socially-inclusive personal, non-use and proxy) and context (4 ex ante and 1 ex post). This new classification makes important distinctions between different perspectives, and health preference researchers really ought to heed its advice. However, I still think it’s limited. As I described in a recent blog post and discussed at a recent HESG meeting, I think the way we talk about ex ante and ex post in this context is very confused. In fact, this paper demonstrates the problem nicely. The authors first discuss the ex post context, the focus being on the value of ‘treatment’ (an event). Then the paper moves on to the ex ante context, and the discussion relates to ‘illness’ (a state). The problem is that health state valuation exercises aren’t (explicitly) about valuing treatments – or illnesses – but about valuing health states in relation to other health states. ‘Ex ante’ means making judgements about something before an event, and ‘ex post’ means to do so after it. But we’re trying to conduct health state valuation, not health event valuation. May the pedantry continue.


Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 9th January 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.

Non-separable time preferences, novelty consumption and body weight: Theory and evidence from the East German transition to capitalism. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published January 2017

Obesity is an ever growing (excuse the pun) problem associated with numerous health risks including diabetes and hypertension. It was recently reported that eight in ten middle-aged Britons are overweight or exercise too little. A strong correlation between economic development and obesity rates has been widely observed both over time within the same countries and between countries across the world. One potential explanation for this correlation is innovation of novel food products that are often energy dense and of little nutritional benefit. However, exploring this hypothesis is difficult as over the long time horizons associated with changing consumer habits and economic development, a multitude of confounding factors also change. This paper attempts to delve into this question making use of the natural experiment of German reunification in 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall a wave of products previously available in West Germany became available to East Germans, almost overnight. The paper provides a nice in depth theoretical model, which is then linked to data and an empirical analysis to provide a comprehensive study of the effect of novel food products in both the short and medium terms. At first glance the effect of reunification on diet habits and weight gain appear fairly substantial both in absolute and relative terms, and these results appear robust and well-founded, theoretically speaking. A question that remains in my mind are whether preferences in this case are endogenous or state dependent, a question that has important implications for policy. Similarly, did reunification reveal East German preferences for fast food and the like, or were those preferences changed as a result of the significant cultural shift? Sadly, this last question is unanswerable, but affects whether we can interpret these results as causal – a thought I shall expand upon in an upcoming blog post.

Ontology, methodological individualism, and the foundations of the social sciences. Journal of Economic Literature [RePEc] Published December 2016

It is not often that we feature philosophically themed papers. But, I am a keen proponent of keeping abreast of advances in our understanding of what exactly it is we are doing day to day. Are we actually producing knowledge of the real world? This review essay discusses the book The Ant Trap by Brian Epstein. Epstein argues that social scientists must get the social ontology right in order to generate knowledge of the social world. A view I think it would be hard to disagree with. But, he argues, economists have not got the social ontology right. In particular, economists are of the belief that social facts are built out of individual people, much like an ant colony is built of ants (hence the title), when in fact a less anthropocentric view should be adopted. In this essay, Robert Sugden argues that Epstein’s arguments against ontological individualism – that social facts are reducible to the actions of individuals – are unconvincing, particularly given Epstein’s apparent lack of insight into what social scientists actually do. Epstein also developed an ontological model for social facts on the basis of work by John Searle, a model which Sugden finds to be overly ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful. There is not enough space here to flesh out any of the arguments, needless to say it is an interesting debate, and one which may or may not make a difference to the methods we use, depending on who you agree with.

Heterogeneity in smokers’ responses to tobacco control policies. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 4th January 2016

In an ideal world, public health policy with regards to drugs and alcohol would be designed to minimise harm. However, it is often the case that policy is concerned with reducing the prevalence of use, rather than harm. Prevalence reducing policies, such as a Pigouvian tax, reduce overall use but only among those with the most elastic demand, who are also likely to be those whose use leads to the least harm. In this light, this study assesses the heterogeneity of tobacco users’ responses to tobacco control policies. Using quantile regression techniques, Erik Nesson finds that the effects of tobacco taxes are most pronounced in those who consume lower numbers of cigarettes, as we might expect. This is certainly not the first study to look at this (e.g. here and here), but reproduction of research findings is an essential part of the scientific process, and this study certainly provides further robust evidence to show that taxes alone may not be the optimum harm reduction strategy.