Thesis Thursday: Alastair Irvine

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 Alastair Irvine who has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Time preferences and the patient-doctor interaction
Supervisors
Marjon van der Pol, Euan Phimister
Repository link
http://digitool.abdn.ac.uk/webclient/DeliveryManager?pid=238373

How can people’s time preferences affect the way they use health care?

Time preferences are a way of thinking about how people choose between things that happen over time. Some people prefer a treatment with large side effects and a long chain of future benefits; others prefer smaller benefits but less side effects. These influence a wide range of health outcomes and decisions. One of the most interesting questions I had coming into the PhD was around non-adherence.

Non-adherence can’t be captured by ‘standard’ exponential time preferences because there is no way for something you prefer now to be ‘less preferred’ in the future if everything is held constant. Instead, present-bias preferences can capture non-adherent behaviour. With these preferences, people place a higher weight on the ‘current period’ relative to all future periods but weight all future periods consistently. What that means is you can have a situation where you plan to do something – eat healthily, take your medication – but end up not doing it. When planning, you placed less relative weight on the near term ‘cost’ (like medication side effects) than you do when the decision arrives.

In what way might the patient-doctor interaction affect a patient’s adherence to treatment?

There’s asymmetric information between doctors and patient, leading to an agency relationship. Doctors in general know more about treatment options than patients, and don’t know their patient’s preferences. So if doctors are making recommendations to patients, this asymmetry can lead to recommendations that are accepted by the patient but not adhered to. For example, present-biased patients accept the same treatments as exponential discounters. Depending on the treatment parameters, present-biased people will not adhere to some treatments. If the doctor doesn’t anticipate this when making recommendations, it leads to non-adherence.

One of the issues from a contracting perspective is that naive present-bias people don’t anticipate their own non-adherence, so we can’t write traditional ‘separating contracts’ that lead present-bias people to one treatment and exponential discounters to another. However, if the doctor can offer a lower level of treatment to all patients – one that has less side effects and a concomitantly lower benefit – then everyone sticks to that treatment. This clearly comes at the expense of the exponential discounters’ health, but if the proportion of present-bias is high enough it can be an efficient outcome.

Were you able to compare the time preferences of patients and of doctors?

Not this time! It had been the ‘grand plan’ at the start of the PhD to compare matched doctor and patient time preferences then link it to treatment choices but that was far too ambitious for the time, and there had been very little work establishing how time preferences work in the patient-doctor interaction so I felt we had a lot to do.

One interesting question we did ask was whether doctors’ time preferences for themselves were the same as for their patients. A lot of the existing evidence asks doctors for their own time preferences, but surely the important time preference is the one they apply to their patients?

We found that while there was little difference between these professional and private time preferences, a lot of the responses displayed increasing impatience. This means that as the start of treatment gets pushed further into the future, doctors started to prefer shorter-but-sooner benefits for themselves and their patients. We’re still thinking about whether this reflects that in the real world (outside the survey) doctors already account for the time patients have spent with symptoms when assessing how quickly a treatment benefit should arrive.

How could doctors alter their practice to reduce non-adherence?

We really only have two options – to make ‘the right thing’ easier or the ‘wrong thing’ more costly. The implication of present-bias is you need to use less intense treatments because the problem is the (relative) over-weighting of the side effects. The important thing we need for that is good information on adherence.

We could pay people to adhere to treatment. However, my gut feeling is that payments are hard to implement on the patient side without being coercive (e.g making non-adherence costly with charges) or expensive for the implementer when identification of completion is tricky (giving bonuses to doctors based on patient health outcomes). So doctors can reduce non-adherence by anticipating it, and offering less ‘painful’ treatments.

It’s important to say I was only looking at one kind of non-adherence. If patients have bad experiences then whatever we do shouldn’t keep them taking a treatment they don’t want. However, the fact that stopping treatment is always an option for the patient makes non-adherence hard to address because as an economist you would like to separate different reasons for stopping. This is a difficulty for analysing non-adherence as a problem of temptation. In temptation preferences we would like to change the outcome set so that ‘no treatment’ is not a tempting choice, but there are real ethical and practical difficulties with that.

To what extent did the evidence generated by your research support theoretical predictions?

I designed a lab experiment that put students in the role of the doctor with patients that may or may not be present-biased. The participants had to recommend treatments to a series of hypothetical patients and was set up so that adapting to non-adherence with less intense treatments was best. Participants got feedback on their previous patients, to learn about which treatments patients stuck to over the rounds.

We paid one arm a salary, and another a ‘performance payment’. The latter only got paid when patients stuck to treatment and the pay correlated with the patient outcomes. In both arms, patients’ outcomes were reflected with a charity donation.

The main result is that there was a lot of adaptation to non-adherence in both arms. The adaptation was stronger under the performance payment, reflecting the upper limit of the adaptation we can expect because it perfectly aligns patient and doctor preferences.

In the experimental setting, even when there is no direct financial benefit of doing so, participants adapted to non-adherence in the way I predicted.

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

Choice in the presence of experts: the role of general practitioners in patients’ hospital choice. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 26th June 2018

In the UK, patients are in principle free to choose which hospital they use for elective procedures. However, as these choices operate through a GP referral, the extent to which the choice is ‘free’ is limited. The choice set is provided by the GP and thus there are two decision-makers. It’s a classic example of the principal-agent relationship. What’s best for the patient and what’s best for the local health care budget might not align. The focus of this study is on the applied importance of this dynamic and the idea that econometric studies that ignore it – by looking only at patient decision-making or only at GP decision-making – may give bias estimates. The author outlines a two-stage model for the choice process that takes place. Hospital characteristics can affect choices in three ways: i) by only influencing the choice set that the GP presents to the patient, e.g. hospital quality, ii) by only influencing the patient’s choice from the set, e.g. hospital amenities, and iii) by influencing both, e.g. waiting times. The study uses Hospital Episode Statistics for 30,000 hip replacements that took place in 2011/12, referred by 4,721 GPs to 168 hospitals, to examine revealed preferences. The choice set for each patient is not observed, so a key assumption is that all hospitals to which a GP made referrals in the period are included in the choice set presented to patients. The main findings are that both GPs and patients are influenced primarily by distance. GPs are influenced by hospital quality and the budget impact of referrals, while distance and waiting times explain patient choices. For patients, parking spaces seem to be more important than mortality ratios. The results support the notion that patients defer to GPs in assessing quality. In places, it’s difficult to follow what the author did and why they did it. But in essence, the author is looking for (and in most cases finding) reasons not to ignore GPs’ preselection of choice sets when conducting econometric analyses involving patient choice. Econometricians should take note. And policymakers should be asking whether freedom of choice is sensible when patients prioritise parking and when variable GP incentives could give rise to heterogeneous standards of care.

Using evidence from randomised controlled trials in economic models: what information is relevant and is there a minimum amount of sample data required to make decisions? PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 20th June 2018

You’re probably aware of the classic ‘irrelevance of inference’ argument. Statistical significance is irrelevant in deciding whether or not to fund a health technology, because we ought to do whatever we expect to be best on average. This new paper argues the case for irrelevance in other domains, namely multiplicity (e.g. multiple testing) and sample size. With a primer on hypothesis testing, the author sets out the regulatory perspective. Multiplicity inflates the chance of a type I error, so regulators worry about it. That’s why triallists often obsess over primary outcomes (and avoiding multiplicity). But when we build decision models, we rely on all sorts of outcomes from all sorts of studies, and QALYs are never the primary outcome. So what does this mean for reimbursement decision-making? Reimbursement is based on expected net benefit as derived using decision models, which are Bayesian by definition. Within a Bayesian framework of probabilistic sensitivity analysis, data for relevant parameters should never be disregarded on the basis of the status of their collection in a trial, and it is up to the analyst to properly specify a model that properly accounts for the effects of multiplicity and other sources of uncertainty. The author outlines how this operates in three settings: i) estimating treatment effects for rare events, ii) the number of trials available for a meta-analysis, and iii) the estimation of population mean overall survival. It isn’t so much that multiplicity and sample size are irrelevant, as they could inform the analysis, but rather that no data is too weak for a Bayesian analyst.

Life satisfaction, QALYs, and the monetary value of health. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published 18th June 2018

One of this blog’s first ever posts was on the subject of ‘the well-being valuation approach‘ but, to date, I don’t think we’ve ever covered a study in the round-up that uses this method. In essence, the method is about estimating trade-offs between (for example) income and some measure of subjective well-being, or some health condition, in order to estimate the income equivalence for that state. This study attempts to estimate the (Australian) dollar value of QALYs, as measured using the SF-6D. Thus, the study is a rival cousin to the Claxton-esque opportunity cost approach, and a rival sibling to stated preference ‘social value of a QALY’ approaches. The authors are trying to identify a threshold value on the basis of revealed preferences. The analysis is conducted using 14 waves of the Australian HILDA panel, with more than 200,000 person-year responses. A regression model estimates the impact on life satisfaction of income, SF-6D index scores, and the presence of long-term conditions. The authors adopt an instrumental variable approach to try and address the endogeneity of life satisfaction and income, using an indicator of ‘financial worsening’ to approximate an income shock. The estimated value of a QALY is found to be around A$42,000 (~£23,500) over a 2-year period. Over the long-term, it’s higher, at around A$67,000 (~£37,500), because individuals are found to discount money differently to health. The results also demonstrate that individuals are willing to pay around A$2,000 to avoid a long-term condition on top of the value of a QALY. The authors apply their approach to a few examples from the literature to demonstrate the implications of using well-being valuation in the economic evaluation of health care. As with all uses of experienced utility in the health domain, adaptation is a big concern. But a key advantage is that this approach can be easily applied to large sets of survey data, giving powerful results. However, I haven’t quite got my head around how meaningful the results are. SF-6D index values – as used in this study – are generated on the basis of stated preferences. So to what extent are we measuring revealed preferences? And if it’s some combination of stated and revealed preference, how should we interpret willingness to pay values?

Credits