Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 6th January 2020

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.

Child sleep and mother labour market outcomes. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published January 2020

It’s pretty clear that sleep is important to almost all aspects of our lives and our well-being. So it is perhaps surprising that economists have paid relatively little attention to the ways in which the quality of sleep influences the ‘economic’ aspects of our lives. Part of the explanation might be that almost anything that you can imagine having an effect on your sleep is also likely to be affected by your sleep. Identifying causality is a challenge. This paper shows us how it’s done.

The study is focussed on the relationship between sleep and labour market outcomes in new mothers. There’s good reason to care about new mothers’ sleep because many new mothers report that lack of sleep is a problem and many suffer from mental and physical health problems that might relate to this. But the major benefit to this study is that the context provides a very nice instrument to help identify causality – children’s sleep. The study uses data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which seems like an impressive data set. The study recruited 14,541 pregnant women with due dates between 1991 and 1993, collecting data on mothers’ and children’s sleep quality and mothers’ labour market activity. The authors demonstrate that children’s sleep (in terms of duration and disturbances) affects the amount of sleep that mothers get. No surprise there. They then demonstrate that the amount of sleep that mothers get affects their labour market outcomes, in terms of their likelihood of being in employment, the number of hours they work, and household income. The authors also demonstrate that children’s sleep quality does not have a direct impact on mothers’ labour market outcomes except through its effect on mothers’ sleep. The causal mechanism seems difficult to refute.

Using a two-stage least squares model with a child’s sleep as an instrument for their mother’s sleep, the authors estimate the effect of mothers’ sleep on labour market outcomes. On average, a 30-minute increase in a mother’s sleep duration increases the number of hours she works by 8.3% and increases household income by 3.1%. But the study goes further (much further) by identifying the potential mechanisms for this effect, with numerous exploratory analyses. Less sleep makes mothers more likely to self-report having problems at work. It also makes mothers less likely to work full-time. Going even further, the authors test the impact of the UK Employment Rights Act 1996, which gave mothers the right to request flexible working. The effect of the Act was to reduce the impact of mothers’ sleep duration on labour market outcomes, with a 6 percentage points lower probability that mothers drop out of the labour force.

My only criticism of this paper is that the copy-editing is pretty poor! There are so many things in this study that are interesting in their own right but also signal need for further research. Unsurprisingly, the study identifies gender inequalities. No wonder men’s wages increase while women’s plateau. Personally, I don’t much care about labour market outcomes except insofar as they affect individuals’ well-being. Thanks to the impressive data set, the study can also show that the impact on women’s labour market outcomes is not simply a response to changing priorities with respect to work, implying that it is actually a problem. The study provides a lot of food for thought for policy-makers.

Health years in total: a new health objective function for cost-effectiveness analysis. Value in Health Published 23rd December 2019

It’s common for me to complain about papers on this blog, usually in relation to one of my (many) pet peeves. This paper is in a different category. It’s dangerous. I’m angry.

The authors introduce the concept of ‘health years in total’. It’s a simple idea that involves separating the QA and the LY parts of the QALY in order to make quality of life and life years additive instead of multiplicative. This creates the possibility of attaching value to life years over and above their value in terms of the quality of life that is experienced in them. ‘Health years’ can be generated at a rate of two per year because each life year is worth 1 and that 1 is added to what the authors call a ‘modified QALY’. This ‘modified QALY’ is based on the supposition that the number of life years in its estimation corresponds to the maximum number of life years available under any treatment scenario being considered. So, if treatment A provides 2 life years and treatment B provides 3 life years, you multiply the quality of life value of treatment A by 3 years and then add the number of actual life years (i.e. 2). On the face of it, this is as stupid as it sounds.

So why do it? Well, some people don’t like QALYs. A cabal of organisations, supposedly representing patients, has sought to undermine the use of cost-effectiveness analysis. For whatever reason, they have decided to pursue the argument that the QALY discriminates against people with disabilities, or anybody else who happens to be unwell. Depending on the scenario this is either untrue or patently desirable. But the authors of this paper seem happy to entertain the cabal. The foundation for the development of the ‘health years in total’ framework is explicitly based in the equity arguments forwarded by these groups. It’s designed to be a more meaningful alternative to the ‘equal value of life’ measure; a measure that has been used in the US context, which adds a value of 1 to life years regardless of their quality.

The paper does a nice job of illustrating the ‘health years in total’ approach compared with the QALY approach and the ‘equal value of life’ approach. There’s merit in considering alternatives to the QALY model, and there may be value in an ‘additive’ approach that in some way separates the valuation of life years from the valuation of health states. There may even be some ethical justification for the ‘health years in total’ framework. But, if there is, it isn’t provided by this paper. To frame the QALY as discriminatory in the way that the authors do, describing this feature as a ‘limitation’ of the QALY approach, and to present an alternative with no basis in ethics is, at best, foolish. In practice, the ‘health years in total’ calculation would favour life-extending treatments over those that improve health. There are some organisations with vested interests in this. Expect to see ‘health years in total’ obscuring decision-making in the United States in the near future.

The causal effect of education on chronic health conditions in the UK. Journal of Health Economics Published 23rd December 2019

Since the dawn of health economics, researchers have been interested in the ways in which education and health outcomes depend on one another. People with more education tend to be healthier. But identifying causal relationships in this context is almost impossible. Some studies have claimed that education has a positive (causal) effect on both general and specific health outcomes. But there are just as many studies that show no impact. This study attempts to solve the problem by throwing a lot of data at it.

The authors analyse the impact of two sets of reforms in the UK. First, the raising of the school leaving age in 1972, from 15 to 16 years. Second, the broader set of reforms that were implemented in the 1990s that resulted in a major increase in the number of people entering higher education. The study’s weapon is the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), which includes over 5 million observations from 1.5 million people. Part of the challenge of identifying the impact of education on health outcomes is that the effects can be expected to be observed over the long-term and can therefore be obscured by other long-term trends. To address this, the authors limit their analyses to people in narrow age ranges in correspondence with the times of the reforms. Thanks to the size of the data set, they still have more than 350,000 observations for each reform. The QLFS asks people to self-report having any of a set of 17 different chronic health conditions. These can be grouped in a variety of ways, or looked at individually. The analysis uses a regression discontinuity framework to test the impact of raising the school leaving age, with birth date acting as an instrument for the number of years spent in education. The analysis of the second reform is less precise, as there is no single discontinuity, so the model identifies variation between the relevant cohorts over the period. The models are used to test a variety of combinations of the chronic condition indicators.

In short, the study finds that education does not seem to have a causal effect on health, in terms of the number of chronic conditions or the probability of having any chronic condition. But, even with their massive data set, the authors cannot exclude the possibility that education does have an effect on health (whether positive or negative). This non-finding is consistent across both reforms and is robust to various specifications. There is one potentially important exception to this. Diabetes. Looking at the school leaving age reform, an additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of having diabetes by 3.6 percentage points. Given the potential for diabetes to depend heavily on an individual’s behaviour and choices, this seems to make sense. Kids, stay in school. Just don’t do it for the good of your health.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 2nd December 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.

The treatment decision under uncertainty: the effects of health, wealth and the probability of death. Journal of Health Economics Published 16th November 2019

It’s important to understand how people make decisions about treatment. At the end of life, the question can become a matter of whether to have treatment or to let things take their course such that you end up dead. In order to consider this scenario, the author of this paper introduces the probability of death to some existing theoretical models of decision-making under uncertainty.

The diagnostic risk model and the therapeutic risk model can be used to identify risk thresholds that determine decisions about treatment. The diagnostic model relates to the probability that disease is present and the therapeutic model relates to the probability that treatment is successful. The new model described in this paper builds on these models to consider the impact on the decision thresholds of i) initial health state, ii) probability of death, and iii) wealth. The model includes wealth after death, in the form of a bequest. Limited versions of the model are also considered, excluding the bequest and excluding wealth (described as a ‘QALY model’). Both an individual perspective and an aggregate perspective are considered by excluding and including the monetary cost of diagnosis and treatment, to allow for a social insurance type setting.

The comparative statics show a lot of ambiguity, but there are a few things that the model can tell us. The author identifies treatment as having an ‘insurance effect’, by reducing diagnostic risk, a ‘protective effect’, by lowering the probability of death, and a risk-increasing effect associated with therapeutic risk. A higher probability of death increases the propensity for treatment in both the no-bequest model and the QALY model, because of the protective effect of treatment. In the bequest model, the impact is ambiguous, because treatment costs reduce the bequest. In the full model, wealthier individuals will choose to undergo treatment at a lower probability of success because of a higher marginal utility for survival, but the effect becomes ambiguous if the marginal utility of wealth depends on health (which it obviously does).

I am no theoretician, so it can take me a long time to figure these things out in my head. For now, I’m not convinced that it is meaningful to consider death in this way using a one-period life model. In my view, the very definition of death is a loss of time, which plays little or no part in this model. But I think my main bugbear is the idea that anybody’s decision about life saving treatment is partly determined by the amount of money they will leave behind. I find this hard to believe. The author links the finding that a higher probability of death increases treatment propensity to NICE’s end of life premium. Though I’m not convinced that the model has anything to do with NICE’s reasoning on this matter.

Moving toward evidence-based policy: the value of randomization for program and policy implementation. JAMA [PubMed] Published 15th November 2019

Evidence-based policy is a nice idea. We should figure out whether something works before rolling it out. But decision-makers (especially politicians) tend not to think in this way, because doing something is usually seen to be better than doing nothing. The authors of this paper argue that randomisation is the key to understanding whether a particular policy creates value.

Without evidence based on random allocation, it’s difficult to know whether a policy works. This, the authors argue, can undermine the success of effective interventions and allow harmful policies to persist. A variety of positive examples are provided from US healthcare, including trials of Medicare bundled payments. Apparently, such trials increased confidence in the programmes’ effects in a way that post hoc evaluations cannot, though no evidence of this increased confidence is actually provided. Policy evaluation is not always easy, so the authors describe four preconditions for the success of such studies: i) early engagement with policymakers, ii) willingness from policy leaders to support randomisation, iii) timing the evaluation in line with policymakers’ objectives, and iv) designing the evaluation in line with the realities of policy implementation.

These are sensible suggestions, but it is not clear why the authors focus on randomisation. The paper doesn’t do what it says on the tin, i.e. describe the value of randomisation. Rather, it explains the value of pre-specified policy evaluations. Randomisation may or may not deserve special treatment compared with other analytical tools, but this paper provides no explanation for why it should. The authors also suggest that people are becoming more comfortable with randomisation, as large companies employ experimental methods, particularly on the Internet with A/B testing. I think this perception is way off and that most people feel creeped out knowing that the likes of Facebook are experimenting on them without any informed consent. In the authors’ view, it being possible to randomise is a sufficient basis on which to randomise. But, considering the ethics, as well as possible methodological contraindications, it isn’t clear that randomisation should become the default.

A new tool for creating personal and social EQ-5D-5L value sets, including valuing ‘dead’. Social Science & Medicine Published 30th November 2019

Nobody can agree on the best methods for health state valuation. Or, at least, some people have disagreed loud enough to make it seem that way. Novel approaches to health state valuation are therefore welcome. Even more welcome is the development and testing of methods that you can try at home.

This paper describes the PAPRIKA method (Potentially All Pairwise RanKings of all possible Alternatives) of discrete choice experiment, implemented using 1000Minds software. Participants are presented with two health states that are defined in terms of just two dimensions, each lasting for 10 years, and asked to choose between them. Using the magical power of computers, an adaptive process identifies further choices, automatically ranking states using transitivity so that people don’t need to complete unnecessary tasks. In order to identify where ‘dead’ sits on the scale, a binary search procedure asks participants to compare EQ-5D states with being dead. What’s especially cool about this process is that everybody who completes it is able to view their own personal value set. These personal value sets can then be averaged to identify a social value set.

The authors used their tool to develop an EQ-5D-5L value set for New Zealand (which is where the researchers are based). They recruited 5,112 people in an online panel, such that the sample was representative of the general public. Participants answered 20 DCE questions each, on average, and almost half of them said that they found the questions difficult to answer. The NZ value set showed that anxiety/depression was associated with the greatest disutility, though each dimension has a notably similar level of impact at each level. The value set correlates well with numerous existing value sets.

The main limitation of this research seems to be that only levels 1, 3, and 5 of each EQ-5D-5L domain were included. Including levels 2 and 4 would more than double the number of questions that would need to be answered. It is also concerning that more than half of the sample was excluded due to low data quality. But the authors do a pretty good job of convincing us that this is for the best. Adaptive designs of this kind could be the future of health state valuation, especially if they can be implemented online, at low cost. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more from PAPRIKA.

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Meeting round-up: Health Economists’ Study Group (HESG) Winter 2019

2019 started with aplomb with the HESG Winter meeting, superbly organised by the Centre for Health Economics, University of York.

Andrew Jones kicked off proceedings with his brilliant course on data visualisation in health econometrics. The eager audience learnt about Edward Tufte’s and others’ ideas about how to create charts that help to make it much easier to understand information. The course was tremendously well received by the HESG audience. And I know that I’ll find it incredibly useful too, as there were lots of ideas that apply to my work. So I’m definitely going to be looking further into Andrew’s chapter on data visualisation to know more.

The conference proper started in the afternoon. I had the pleasure to chair the fascinating paper by Manuela Deidda et al on an economic evaluation using observational data on the Healthy Start Voucher, which was discussed by Anne Ludbrook. We had an engaging discussion, that not only delved into the technical aspects of the paper, such as the intricacies of implementing propensity score matching and regression discontinuity, but also about the policy implications of the results.

I continued with the observational data theme by enjoying the discussion led by Panos Kasteridis on the Andrew McCarthy et al paper. Then I quickly followed this by popping over to catch Attakrit Leckcivilize’s excellent discussion of Padraig Dixon’s et al paper on the effect of obesity on hospital costs. This impressive paper uses Mendelian randomisation, which is a fascinating approach using a type of instrumental variable analysis with individuals’ genetic variants as the instrument.

The meeting continued in the stunning setting of the Yorkshire Museum for the plenary session, which also proved a fitting location to pay tribute to the inspirational Alan Maynard, who sadly passed away in 2018. Unfortunately, I was unable to hear the tributes to Alan Maynard in person, but fellow attendees were able to paint a moving portrait of the event on Twitter, that kept me in touch.

The plenary was chaired by Karen Bloor and included presentations by Kalipso Chalkidou, Brian Ferguson, Becky Henderson and Danny PalnochJane Hall, Steve Birch and Maria Goddard gave personal tributes.

The health economics community was united in gratitude to Professor Alan Maynard, who did so much to advance and disseminate the discipline. It made for a wonderful way to finish day 1!

Day 2 started bright and was full of stimulating sessions to choose from.

I chose to zone in on the cost-effectiveness topic in particular. I started with the David Glynn et al paper about using “back of the envelope” calculations to inform funding and research decisions, discussed by Ed Wilson. This paper is an excellent step towards making value of information easy to use.

I then attended Matthew Quaife’s discussion of Matthew Taylor’s paper on the consequences of assuming independence of parameters to decision uncertainty. This is a relevant paper for the cost-effectiveness world, in particular for those tasked with building and appraising cost-effectiveness models.

Next up it was my turn in the hot seat, as I presented the Jose Robles-Zurita et al paper on the economic evaluation of diagnostic tests. This thought-provoking paper presents a method to account for the effect of accuracy on the uptake of the test, in the context of maximising health.

As always, we were spoilt for choice in the afternoon. The paper “Drop dead: is anchoring at ‘dead’ a theoretical requirement in health state valuation” by Chris Sampson et al, competed very strongly with “Is it really ‘Grim up North’? The causes and consequences of inequalities on health and wider outcomes” by Anna Wilding et al, for the most provocative title. “Predicting the unpredictable? Using discrete choice experiments in economic evaluation to characterise uncertainty and account for heterogeneity”, from Matthew Quaife et al, also gave them a run for their money! I’ll leave a sample here of the exciting papers in discussion, so you can make your own mind up:

Dinner was in the splendid Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Built in 1357, it is one of the finest Medieval buildings in the UK. Another stunning setting that provided a beautiful backdrop for a wonderful evening!

Andrew Jones presented the ‘Health Economics’ PhD Poster Prize, sponsored by Health Economics Wiley. Rose Atkins took the top honours by winning the Wiley prize for best poster. With Ashleigh Kernohan’s poster being highly commended, given its brilliant use of technology. Congratulations both!

Unfortunately, the vagaries of public transport meant I had to go home straight after dinner, but I heard from many trustworthy sources, on the following day, that the party continued well into the early hours. Clearly, health economics is a most energising topic!

For me, day 3 was all about cost-effectiveness decision rules. I started with the paper by Mark Sculpher et al, discussed by Chris Sampson. This remarkable paper sums up the evidence on the marginal productivity of the NHS, discussing how to use it to inform decisions, and proposes an agenda for research. There were many questions and comments from the floor, showing how important and challenging this topic is. As are so many papers in HESG, this is clearly one to look out for when it appears in print!

The next paper was on a very different way to solve the problem of resource allocation in health care. Philip Clarke and Paul Frijters propose an interesting system of auctions to set prices. The paper was well discussed by James Lomas, which kick-started an animated discussion with the audience about practicalities and implications for investment decisions by drug companies. Great food for thought!

Last, but definitely not least, I took in the paper by Bernarda Zamora et al on the relationship between health outcomes and expenditure across geographical areas in England. David Glynn did a great job discussing the paper, and especially in explaining data envelopment analysis. As ever, the audience was highly engaged and put forward many questions and comments. Clearly, the productivity of the NHS is a central question for health economics and will keep us busy for some time to come.

As always, this was a fantastic HESG meeting that was superbly organised, providing an environment where authors, discussants and participants alike were able to excel.

I really felt a feeling of collegiality, warmth and energy permeate the event. We are part of such an amazing scientific community. Next stop, HESG Summer meeting, hosted by the University of East Anglia. I’m already looking forward to it!

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