Meeting round-up: Health Economists’ Study Group (HESG) Winter 2018

Last week’s biannual intellectual knees-up for UK health economists took place at City, University of London. We’ve written before about HESG, but if you need a reminder of the format you can read Lucy Abel’s blog post on the subject. This was the first HESG I’ve been to in a while that took place in an actual university building.

The conference kicked off for me with my colleague Grace Hampson‘s first ever HESG discussion. It was an excellent discussion of Toby Watt‘s paper on the impact of price promotions for cola, in terms of quantities purchased (they increase) and – by extension – sugar consumption. It was a nice paper with a clear theoretical framework and empirical strategy, which generated a busy discussion. Nutrition is a subject that I haven’t seen represented much at past HESG meetings, but there were several on the schedule this time around with other papers by Jonathan James and Ben Gershlick. I expect it’s something we’ll see becoming more prevalent as policymaking becomes more insistent.

The second and third sessions I attended were on the relationship between health and social care, which is a pressing matter in the UK, particular with regard to achieving integrated care. Ben Zaranko‘s paper considered substitution effects arising from changes in the relative budgets of health and social care. Jonathan Stokes and colleagues attempted to identify whether the Better Care Fund has achieved its goal of reducing secondary care use. That paper got a blazing discussion from Andrew Street that triggered an insightful discussion in the room.

A recurring theme in many sessions was the challenge of communicating with local decision-makers, and the apparent difficulty in working without a reference case to fall back on (such as that of NICE). This is something that I have heard regularly discussed at least since the Winter 2016 meeting in Manchester. At City, this was most clearly discussed in Emma Frew‘s paper describing the researchers’ experiences working with local government. Qualitative research has clearly broken through at HESG, including Emma’s paper and a study by Hareth Al-Janabi on the subject of treatment spillovers on family carers.

I also saw a few papers that related primarily to matters of research conduct and publishing. Charitini Stavropoulou‘s paper explored whether highly-cited researchers are more likely to receive public funding, while the paper I chaired by Anum Shaikh explored the potential for recycling cost-effectiveness models. The latter was a joy for me, with much discussion of model registries!

There were plenty of papers that satisfied my own particular research interests. Right up my research street was Mauro Laudicella‘s paper, which used real-world data to assess the cost savings associated with redirecting cancer diagnoses to GP referral rather than emergency presentation. I wasn’t quite as optimistic about the potential savings, with the standard worries about lead time bias and selection effects. But it was a great paper nonetheless. Also using real-world evidence was Ewan Gray‘s study, which supported the provision of adjuvant chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer but delivered some perplexing findings about patient-GP decision-making. Ewan’s paper explored technical methodological challenges, though the prize for the most intellectually challenging paper undoubtedly goes to Manuel Gomes, who continued his crusade to make health economists better at dealing with missing data – this time for the case of quality of life data. Milad Karimi‘s paper asked whether preferences over health states are informed. This is the kind of work I enjoy thinking about – whether measures like the EQ-5D capture what really matters and how we might do better.

As usual, many delegates worked hard and played hard. I took a beating from the schedule at this HESG, with my discussion taking place during the first session after the conference dinner (where we walked in the footsteps of the Spice Girls) and my chairing responsibilities falling on the last session of the last day. But in both cases, the audience was impressive.

I’ll leave the final thought for the blog post with Peter Smith’s plenary, which considered the role of health economists in a post-truth world. Happily, for me, Peter’s ideas chimed with my own view that we ought to be taking our message to the man on the Clapham omnibus and supporting public debate. Perhaps our focus on (national) policymakers is too strong. If not explicit, this was a theme that could be seen throughout the meeting, whether it be around broader engagement with stakeholders, recognising local decision-making processes, or harnessing the value of storytelling through qualitative research. HESG members are STRETCHing the truth.


Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 29th May 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.

“Naming and framing”: The impact of labeling on health state values for multiple sclerosis. Medical Decision Making [PubMedPublished 21st May 2017

Tell someone that the health state that they’re valuing is actually related to cancer, and they’ll give you a different value than if you hadn’t mentioned cancer. A lower value, probably. There’s a growing amount of evidence that ‘labelling’ health state descriptions with the name of a particular disease can influence the resulting values. Generally, the evidence is that mentioning the disease will lower values, though that’s probably because researchers have been selecting diseases that they think will show this. (Has anyone tried it for hayfever?) The jury is out on whether labelling is a good thing or a bad thing, so in the meantime, we need evidence for particular diseases to help us understand what’s going on. This study looks at MS. Two UK-representative samples (n = 1576; n = 1641) completed an online TTO valuation task for states defined using the condition-specific preference-based MSIS-8D. Participants were first asked to complete the MSIS-8D to provide their own health state, and then to rank three MSIS-8D states and also complete a practice TTO task. For the preference elicitation proper, individuals were presented with a set of 5 MSIS-8D health states. One group were asked to imagine that they had MS and were provided with some information and a link to the NHS Choices website. The authors’ first analysis tests for a difference due to labelling. Their second analysis creates two alternative tariffs for the MSIS-8D based on the two surveys. People in the label group reported lower health state values on average. The size of this labelling-related decrement was greater for less severe health states. The creation of the tariffs seemed to show that labelling does not have a consistent impact across dimensions. This means that, in practice, the two tariffs could favour different types of interventions, depending on for which dimensions benefits might be observed. The tariff derived from the label group demonstrated slightly poorer predictive performance. This study tells us that label-or-not is a decision that will influence the relative cost-effectiveness of interventions for MS. But we still need a sound basis for making that choice.

Nudges in a post-truth world. Journal of Medical Ethics [PubMed] Published 19th May 2017

Not everyone likes the idea of nudges. They can be used to get people to behave in ways that are ‘better’… but who decides what is better? Truth, surely, we can all agree, is better. There are strong forces against the truth, whether they be our own cognitive biases, the mainstream media (FAKE NEWS!!!), or Nutella trying to tell us they offer a healthy breakfast option thanks to all that calcium. In this essay, the author outlines a special kind of nudge, which he refers to as a ‘nudge to reason’. The paper starts with a summary of the evidence regarding the failure of people to change their minds in response to evidence, and the backfire effect, whereby false beliefs become even more entrenched in light of conflicting evidence. Memory failures, and the ease with which people can handle the information, are identified as key reasons for perverse responses to evidence. The author then goes on to look at the evidence in relation to the conditions in which people do respond to evidence. In particular, where people get their evidence matters (we still trust academics, right?). The persuasiveness of evidence can be influenced by the way it is delivered. So why not nudge towards the truth? The author focuses on a key objection to nudges; that they do not protect freedom in a substantive sense because they bypass people’s capacities for deliberation. Nudges take advantage of non-rational features of human nature and fail to treat people as autonomous agents deserving of respect. One of the reasons I’ve never much like nudges is that they could promote ignorance and reinforce biases. Nudges to reason, on the other hand, influence behaviour indirectly via beliefs: changing behaviour by changing minds by improving responses to genuine evidence. The author argues that nudges to reason do not bypass the deliberative capacities of agents at all, but rather appeal to them, and are thus permissible. They operate by appealing to mechanisms that are partially constitutive of rationality and this is itself part of what defines our substantive freedom. We could also extend this to argue that we have a moral responsibility to frame arguments in a way that is truth-conducive, in order to show respect to individuals. I think health economists are in a great position to contribute to these debates. Our subfield exists principally because of uncertainty and asymmetry of information in health care. We’ve been studying these things for years. I’m convinced by the author’s arguments about the permissibility of nudges to reason. But they’d probably make for flaccid public policy. Nudges to reason would surely be dominated by nudges to ignorance. Either people need coercing towards the truth or those nudges to ignorance need to be shut down.

How should hospital reimbursement be refined to support concentration of complex care services? Health Economics [PubMed] Published 19th May 2017

Treating rare and complex conditions in specialist centres may be good for patients. We might expect these patients to be especially expensive to treat compared with people treated in general hospitals. Therefore, unless reimbursement mechanisms are able to account for this, specialist hospitals will be financially disadvantaged and concentration might not be sustainable. Healthcare Resource Groups (HRGs) – the basis for current payments – only work if variation in cost is not related to any differences in the types of patients treated at particular hospitals. This study looks at hospitals that might be at risk of financial disadvantage due to differences in casemix complexity. Individual-level Hospital Episode Statistics for 2013-14 were matched to hospital-level Reference Costs and a set of indicators for the use of specialist services were applied. The data included 12.4 million patients of whom 766,204 received complex care. The authors construct a random effects model estimating the cost difference associated with complex care, by modelling the impact of a set of complex care markers on individual-level cost estimates. The Gini coefficient is estimated to look at the concentration of complex care across hospitals. Most of the complex care markers were associated with significantly higher costs. 26 of 69 types of complex care were associated with costs more than 10% higher. What’s more, complex care was concentrated among relatively few hospitals with a mean Gini coefficient of 0.88. Two possible approaches to fixing the payment system are considered: i) recalculation of the HRG price to include a top-up or ii) a more complex refinement of the allocation of patients to different HRGs. The second option becomes less attractive as more HRGs are subject to this refinement as we could end up with just one hospital reporting all of the activity for a particular HRG. Based on the expected impact of these differences – in view of the size of the cost difference and the extent of distribution across different HRGs and hospitals – the authors are able to make recommendations about which HRGs might require refinement. The study also hints at an interesting challenge. Some of the complex care services were associated with lower costs where care was concentrated in very few centres, suggesting that concentration could give rise to cost savings. This could imply that some HRGs may need refining downwards with complexity, which feels a bit counterintuitive. My only criticism of the paper? The references include at least 3 web pages that are no longer there. Please use WebCite, people!