Thesis Thursday: Sarah Zheng

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Sarah Zheng who has a PhD from Boston University. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Design for performance: studies on cost and quality in U.S. health care
Supervisors
Z. Justin Ren, Kimberley H. Geissler, Janelle Heineke, Anita Tucker
Repository link
https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/23312

In the context of your PhD research, what does ‘design for performance’ mean?

“Design for performance” is a further step in managing healthcare from “pay for performance”, on which there has been decades of attention paid among practitioners and academics. Despite the long effort on “pay for performance”, the core challenge remains how to properly incentivize patients, clinicians and staff to align their behaviors with optimal, safe and cost-effective, patient-centric care. This dissertation suggests an important set of issues to consider around “design for performance” at the system and process levels.

At the system level, under what conditions does cost-sharing lead to lower total costs without reducing quality of care? Previous literature has studied contract theory and mechanism design in varied industry settings (Guajardo et al. 2012), yet very few are studied in the healthcare domain where insurance plans are offered to patients under different contract arrangements. It remains unclear whether certain contract design at such settings may lead to desired outcomes (e.g., low healthcare spending). At the process level, under what conditions and to what extent does excellent internal supply operations result in superior hospital performance? Industrial studies suggest that reliable, efficient internal supply chains that are integrated with production yield better financial and quality performance for manufacturing companies (Droge et al. 2004, Flynn et al. 2010). However, there is scant quantitative research on the impact of support departments in hospitals (Tucker et al. 2008, Fredendall et al. 2009). Studies are needed to understand the extent to which support departments impact patient care outcomes, such as adverse events.

How was quality captured in the data that you used in your analyses?

In Chapter 3 of my thesis, I studied the impact of internal service quality on one particular quality performance metric: adverse events. Specifically, it is a rate variable that is calculated by the sum of adverse events (i.e., patient falls with injury and pressure ulcers) on the unit that month divided by the number of patient days on the unit that month, which is then multiplied by 1,000. The hospital collects these data monthly. The adverse event data come from both patient record reviews and incident reports in the hospital’s safety reporting system, as is typical of this type of data (Lake and Cheung 2006). The error event data are audited internally as well as reported to CMS (Zheng et al. 2017).

This is a unique opportunity to study quality as most healthcare operations research has relied on publicly available, hospital-level quality data, such as patient mortality (e.g., Senot et al. 2015, KC and Terwiesch 2011)—which is a blunt measure of quality—or process of care measures (e.g., Boyer et al. 2012, Gardner et al. 2015, Senot et al. 2015), which have been criticized in the healthcare literature for their weak connection to clinical outcomes (Patterson et al. 2010).

You complemented your quantitative analysis with some qualitative interviews – was this a valuable exercise?

Yes, definitely. To understand further the role patients (and the patient-physician dyad) play in deciding the usage of imaging studies, I conducted in-depth conversations with both physicians and patients. Specifically, I interviewed three physicians (i.e., hospitalist, primary care provider) and one imaging technician with the average conversation time of 70 mins. I also interviewed six patients with the average conversation time of 20 mins.

I found that patients did play a role in deciding the usage of imaging studies in the way that high-deductible health plan (HDHP) patients are less likely to demand imaging studies than non-HDHP patients. However, as patients cannot distinguish low-value care from high-value care, HDHP patients avoid patient care in general. This is consistent with previous literature on patient cost-sharing and HDHPs where patients indiscriminately reduce medical care (Hibbard et al. 2008, Lohr et al. 1986). It further suggests that HDHP may be a blunt instrument, reducing all diagnostic imaging, rather than helping physicians and patients choose high-value imaging.

Did any of your findings about high-deductible health plans stand out as different from previous studies?

I wouldn’t say different but more like complementary. Previous studies found HDHPs have different impacts depending on the site and type of care (Haviland et al. 2015, Wharam et al. 2013, Bundorf 2012, Nair et al. 2009, Waters et al. 2011, Hibbard et al. 2008, Busch et al. 2006, Rowe et al. 2008, Parente et al. 2004). By explicitly testing associations between HDHP enrollment and diagnostic imaging, we provide a more complete picture for policymakers in making guidelines related to HDHP plans. Our results suggest that increases in HDHP enrollment may contribute to a slow in the growth of diagnostic imaging utilization. However, increased cost-sharing may not allow patients to differentiate between high-value and low-value utilization, and better patient awareness and education should be a crucial part of any reductions in diagnostic imaging utilization (Zheng et al. 2016).

‘Internal service quality’ is a term that doesn’t often appear in health economics journals – should researchers be dedicating more attention to this?

Yes. In our study we find improved internal service quality to be a particularly novel driver of reduced adverse events because it is not obvious a priori that support departments—most of which are not clinical in nature—could have a significant impact on clinical outcomes. In particular, we find that improving the overall average internal service quality received by a nursing unit by 0.1 on a 5-point scale is associated with a 38% reduction in adverse events per nursing unit, which has roughly the same benefit for reducing adverse events as increasing staffing on that unit by nearly one full-time equivalent nurse. In the hospital that we study, the average salary of a support service technician is lower than the average salary of a nurse. Thus, hospitals might be able to improve quality of care at a lower cost by increasing support staff to relieve the burden on nurses (Zheng et al. 2017). More studies are needed in this area to explore further internal service quality as a viable and cost-effective means to improve clinical performance.

Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 14th August 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.

Does paying service providers by results improve recovery outcomes for drug misusers in treatment in England? Addiction [PubMedPublished 10th August 2017

‘Getting what you pay for’ is a fundamentally attractive funding model, which is why we see lots of pay for performance (P4P) initiatives cropping up in the NHS. But P4P plans can go awry. This study considers an experimental setting in which 8 areas participated in P4P pilots for drug misuse treatment, from 2012-2014. Payments were aligned with 3 national priorities: i) abstinence, ii) reduced offending and iii) improved health and well-being. The participating areas allocated differing proportions of payments to the P4P model, between 10% and 100%. Data were drawn from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System, which includes information on drug use, assessment and interventions received. Other national sources were used to identify criminal activity and mortality rates. Drug misusers attending treatment services during the 2 years before and after the introduction of the P4P scheme were included in the study. Using a difference-in-differences analysis, the researchers compared outcomes in the 8 participating areas with those in 143 non-participating areas. Separate multilevel regression models were used for a set of outcomes, each controlling for a variety of individual-level characteristics. The authors analysed ‘treatment journeys’, of which there were around 20,000 for those in participating areas and 280,000 for those in non-participating areas; roughly half before the introduction and half after. The results don’t look good for P4P. Use of opiates, crack cocaine and injecting increased. Treatment initiation increased in non-participating areas but decreased in participating areas. Moreover, longer waiting times were observed in participating areas as well as more unplanned discharges. P4P was associated with people being less likely to successfully complete treatment within 12 months. In P4P’s favour, there was evidence that abstinence increased. I’d’ve liked to have seen some attempt at matching between the areas, given that there was an element of self-selection into the scheme. Or at least, better control for the characteristics of the areas before P4P was introduced. This paper isn’t quite the final nail in the coffin. I don’t see P4P disappearing anytime soon. There’s a lot to be learnt from the paper’s discussion, which outlines some of the likely reasons and mechanisms underlying the findings. Commissioners should take note.

The short- and long-run effects of smoking cessation on alcohol consumption. International Journal of Health Economics and Management [PubMedPublished 7th August 2017

Anecdotally, it seems as if smoking and drinking are complementary behaviours. Generally, the evidence suggests that this is true. Smoking cessation programmes may, therefore, have value in their ability to reduce alcohol consumption (and vice versa). But only if the relationship is causal. This study seeks to add to that causal evidence. Using data from 5887 individuals in the Lung Health Study, the author runs a two-stage least squares estimation, with randomisation to smoking cessation treatment as an instrumental variable for smoking status. In the short term, there is some evidence that smokers tend to drink more (especially men). But findings in the longer term, up to 5 years, are more persuasive. It’s unfortunate that the (largely incoherent) rational addiction theory makes an appearance and that the findings are presented as supportive of it. A stopped clock is right twice a day. In line with rational addiction theory, the long-term relationship is measured in terms of a ‘smoking stock’, which is an aggregate measure of smoking behaviour over the 5 year period. Smoking and drinking are found to be complementary in the long term. Crucially, the extent of their complementarity is associated with particular factors. For example, people who smoke more cigarettes or who abstain for longer exhibit larger reductions in alcohol consumption when they stop smoking. People who smoke relatively few cigarettes per day do not drink more alcohol. Those smoking 6-10 per day consume around 1 extra drink per week compared with non-smokers. Quitting for 5 years can reduce alcohol consumption by more than 50%. In the long run, the effect is more pronounced for women and for people who are married. This highlights important opportunities for targeted public policy, which could achieve a win-win in terms of reducing both cigarette and alcohol consumption.

Time for a change in how new antibiotics are reimbursed: development of an insurance framework for funding new antibiotics based on a policy of risk mitigation. Health Policy Published 5th August 2017

Antibiotics have become a key component of health care, but antimicrobial resistance threatens their usefulness and we don’t see new antibiotics in the pipeline to help overcome this. It’s a fundamentally difficult problem; we want new antibiotics but we want to use them as sparingly as possible. Antibiotic development is relatively unattractive (financially) to pharmaceutical companies. Provision of research funding and regulatory changes haven’t solved the problem to date. This paper considers why this might be the case, and explores 2 alternative approaches: a premium price model and an insurance-type model. Essentially, the authors conduct a spreadsheet analysis to compare the alternative models with a base case of no incentives. The expected net present value of the base case was negative (to the tune of about $1.5 billion), demonstrating why much-needed new antibiotics aren’t being developed. Current incentives – including public-private funding partnerships and market exclusivity – are also shown to fail to reach a positive net present value. The premium price model, whereby there is an enhanced price per unit, is not particularly attractive. The daily cost of the resulting antibiotics would likely be too high, and manufacturers’ pursuit of profit would be at odds with conservative prescribing. Furthermore, it exposes areas experiencing outbreaks to serious financial risk. The insurance model, which involved an annual fee paid by each healthcare system (to manufacturers), is more promising. Pharmaceutical companies would be insured against low prices and variable use and health systems would be insured against a lack of antibiotics and the risk of an infection outbreak. The key feature here is that manufacturers’ revenues are de-linked from sales volume. This is important when we consider the need for conservative prescribing. The authors estimate that the necessary fee (for the global market) would be around $262 million per year, or $114 million if combined with current funding and regulatory incentives. Of course, these findings are based on major assumptions about infection rates, research costs and plenty besides. A number of sensitivity analyses are conducted that highlight uncertainty about what the insurance fee might need to be in the future. I think this uncertainty is somewhat understated – there are far more sensitivity and scenario analyses that would be warranted if such a policy were being seriously considered. Nevertheless, pooling risk in an insurance model looks like a promising strategy that’s worthy of further investigation and piloting.

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Paul Mitchell’s journal round-up for 17th 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.

What goes wrong with the allocation of domestic and international resources for HIV? Health Economics [PubMedPublished 7th July 2017

Investment in foreign aid is coming under considered scrutiny as a number of leading western economies re-evaluate their role in the world and their obligations to countries with developing economies. Therefore, it is important for those who believe in the benefits of such investments to show that they are being done efficiently. This paper looks at how funding for HIV is distributed both domestically and internationally across countries, using multivariate regression analysis with instruments to control for reverse causality between financing and HIV prevalence, and domestic and international financing. The author is also concerned about countries free riding on international aid and estimates how countries ought to be allocating national resources to HIV using quintile regression to estimate what countries have fiscal space for expanding their current spending domestically. The results of the study show that domestic expenditure relative to GDP per capita is almost unit elastic, whereas it is inelastic with regards to HIV prevalence. Government effectiveness (as defined by the World Bank indices) has a statistically significant effect on domestic expenditure, although it is nonlinear, with gains more likely when moving up from a lower level of government effectiveness. International expenditure is inversely related to GDP per capita and HIV prevalence, and positively with government effectiveness, albeit the regression models for international expenditure had poor explanatory power. Countries with higher GDP per capita tended to dedicate more money towards HIV, however, the author reckons there is $3bn of fiscal space in countries such as South Africa and Nigeria to contribute more to HIV, freeing up international aid for other countries such as Cameroon, Ghana, Thailand, Pakistan and Columbia. The author is concerned that countries with higher GDP should be able to allocate more to HIV, but feels there are improvements to be made in how international aid is distributed too. Although there is plenty of food for thought in this paper, I was left wondering how this analysis can help in aiding a better allocation of resources. The normative model of what funding for HIV ought to be is from the viewpoint that this is the sole objective of countries of allocating resources, which is clearly contestable (the author even casts doubt as to whether this is true for international funding of HIV). Perhaps the other demands faced by national governments (e.g. funding for other diseases, education etc.) can be better reflected in future research in this area.

Can pay-for-performance to primary care providers stimulate appropriate use of antibiotics? Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEcPublished 7th July 2017

Antibiotic resistance is one of the largest challenges facing global health this century. This study from Sweden looks to see whether pay for performance (P4P) can have a role in the prescription practices of GPs when it comes to treating children with respiratory tract infection. P4P was introduced on a staggered basis across a number of regions in Sweden to incentivise primary care to use narrow spectrum penicillin as a first line treatment, as it is said to have a smaller impact on resistance. Taking advantage of data from the Swedish Prescribed Drug Register between 2006-2013, the authors conducted a difference in difference regression analysis to show the effect P4P had on the share of the incentivised antibiotic. They find a positive main effect of P4P on drug prescribing of 1.1 percentage points, that is also statistically significant. Of interest, the P4P in Sweden under analysis here was not directly linked to salaries of GPs but the health care centre. Although there are a number of limitations with the study that the authors clearly highlight in the discussion, it is a good example of how to make the most of routinely available data. It also highlights that although the share of the less resistant antibiotic went up, the national picture of usage of antibiotics did not reduce in line with a national policy aimed at doing so during the same time period. Even though Sweden is reported to be one of the lower users of antibiotics in Europe, it highlights the need to carefully think through how targets are achieved and where incentives might help in some areas to meet such targets.

Econometric modelling of multiple self-reports of health states: the switch from EQ-5D-3L to EQ-5D-5L in evaluating drug therapies for rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of Health Economics Published 4th July 2017

The EQ-5D is the most frequently used health state descriptive system for the generation of utility values for quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) in economic evaluation. To improve sensitivity and reduce floor and ceiling effects, the EuroQol team developed a five level version (5L) compared to the previous three level (3L) version. This study adds to recent evidence in this area of the unforeseen consequences of making this change to the descriptive system and also the valuation system used for the 5L. Using data from the National Data Bank for Rheumatic Diseases, where both 3L and 5L versions were completed simultaneously alongside other clinical measures, the authors construct a mapping between both versions of EQ-5D, informed by the response levels and the valuation systems that have been developed in the UK for the measures. They also test their mapping estimates on a previous economic evaluation for rheumatoid arthritis treatments. The descriptive results show that although there is a high correlation between both versions, and the 5L version achieves its aim of greater sensitivity, there is a systematic difference in utility scores generated using both versions, with an average 87% of the score of the 3L recorded compared to the 5L. Not only are there differences highlighted between value sets for the 3L and 5L but also the responses to dimensions across measures, where the mobility and pain dimensions do not align as one would expect. The new mapping developed in this paper highlights some of the issues with previous mapping methods used in practice, including the assumption of independence of dimension levels from one another that was used while the new valuation for the 5L was being developed. Although the case study they use to demonstrate the effect of using the different approaches in practice did not result in a different cost-effectiveness result, the study does manage to highlight that the assumption of 3L and 5L versions being substitutes for one another, both in terms of descriptive systems and value sets, does not hold. Although the authors are keen to highlight the benefits of their new mapping that produces a smooth distribution from actual to predicted 5L, decision makers will need to be clear about what descriptive system they now want for the generation of QALYs, given the discrepancies between 3L and 5L versions of EQ-5D, so that consistent results are obtained from economic evaluations.

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