Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 5th March 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.

Healthy working days: the (positive) effect of work effort on occupational health from a human capital approach. Social Science & Medicine Published 28th February 2018

If you look at the literature on the determinants of subjective well-being (or happiness), you’ll see that unemployment is often cited as having a big negative impact. The same sometimes applies for its impact on health, but here – of course – the causality is difficult to tease apart. Then, in research that digs deeper, looking at hours worked and different types of jobs, we see less conclusive results. In this paper, the authors start by asserting that the standard approach in labour economics (on which I’m not qualified to comment) is to assume that there is a negative association between work effort and health. This study extends the framework by allowing for positive effects of work that are related to individuals’ characteristics and working conditions, and where health is determined in a Grossman-style model of health capital that accounts for work effort in the rate of health depreciation. This model is used to examine health as a function of work effort (as indicated by hours worked) in a single wave of the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) from 2010 for 15 EU member states. Key items from the EWCS included in this study are questions such as “does your work affect your health or not?”, “how is your health in general?”, and “how many hours do you usually work per week?”. Working conditions are taken into account by looking at data on shift working and the need to wear protective equipment. One of the main findings of the study is that – with good working conditions – greater work effort can improve health. The Marxist in me is not very satisfied with this. We need to ask the question, compared to what? Working fewer hours? For most people, that simply isn’t an option. Aren’t the people who work fewer hours the people who can afford to work fewer hours? No attention is given to the sociological aspects of employment, which are clearly important. The study also shows that overworking or having poorer working conditions reduces health. We also see that, for many groups, longer hours do not negatively impact on health until we reach around 120 hours a week. This fails a good sense check. Who are these people?! I’d be very interested to see if these findings hold for academics. That the key variables are self-reported undermines the conclusions somewhat, as we can expect people to adjust their expectations about work effort and health in accordance with their colleagues. It would be very difficult to avoid a type 2 error (with respect to the negative impact of effort on health) using these variables to represent health and the role of work effort.

Agreement between retrospectively and contemporaneously collected patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) in hip and knee replacement patients. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published 26th February 2018

The use of patient-reported outcomes (PROMs) in elective care in the NHS has been a boon for researchers in our field, providing before-and-after measurement of health-related quality of life so that we can look at the impact of these interventions. But we can’t do this in emergency care because the ‘before’ is never observed – people only show up when they’re in the middle of the emergency. But what if people could accurately recall their pre-emergency health state? There’s some evidence to suggest that people can, so long as the recall period is short. This study looks at NHS PROMs data (n=443), with generic and condition-specific outcomes collected from patients having hip or knee replacements. Patients included in the study were additionally asked to recall their health state 4 weeks prior to surgery. The authors assess the extent to which the contemporary PROM measurements agree with the retrospective measurements, and the extent to which any disagreement relates to age, socioeconomic status, or the length of time to recall. There wasn’t much difference between contemporary and retrospective measurements, though patients reported slightly lower health on the retrospective questionnaires. And there weren’t any compelling differences associated with age or socioeconomic status or the length of recall. These findings are promising, suggesting that we might be able to rely on retrospective PROMs. But the elective surgery context is very different to the emergency context, and I don’t think we can expect the two types of health care to impact recollection in the same way. In this study, responses may also have been influenced by participants’ memories of completing the contemporary questionnaire, and the recall period was very short. But the only way to find out more about the validity of retrospective PROM collection is to do more of it, so hopefully we’ll see more studies asking this question.

Adaptation or recovery after health shocks? Evidence using subjective and objective health measures. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 26th February 2018

People’s expectations about their health can influence their behaviour and determine their future health, so it’s important that we understand people’s expectations and any ways in which they diverge from reality. This paper considers the effect of a health shock on people’s expectations about how long they will live. The authors focus on survival probability, measured objectively (i.e. what actually happens to these patients) and subjectively (i.e. what the patients expect), and the extent to which the latter corresponds to the former. The arguments presented are couched within the concept of hedonic adaptation. So the question is – if post-shock expectations return to pre-shock expectations after a period of time – whether this is because people are recovering from the disease or because they are moving their reference point. Data are drawn from the Health and Retirement Study. Subjective survival probability is scaled to whether individuals expect to survive for 2 years. Cancer, stroke, and myocardial infarction are the health shocks used. The analysis uses some lagged regression models, separate for each of the three diagnoses, with objective and subjective survival probability as the dependent variable. There’s a bit of a jumble of things going on in this paper, with discussions of adaptation, survival, self-assessed health, optimism, and health behaviours. So it’s a bit difficult to see the wood for the trees. But the authors find the effect they’re looking for. Objective survival probability is negatively affected by a health shock, as is subjective survival probability. But then subjective survival starts to return to pre-shock trends whereas objective survival does not. The authors use this finding to suggest that there is adaptation. I’m not sure about this interpretation. To me it seems as if subjective life expectancy is only weakly responsive to changes in objective life expectancy. The findings seem to have more to do with how people process information about their probability of survival than with how they adapt to a situation. So while this is an interesting study about how people process changes in survival probability, I’m not sure what it has to do with adaptation.

3L, 5L, what the L? A NICE conundrum. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 26th February 2018

In my last round-up, I said I was going to write a follow-up blog post to an editorial on the EQ-5D-5L. I didn’t get round to it, but that’s probably best as there has since been a flurry of other editorials and commentaries on the subject. Here’s one of them. This commentary considers the perspective of NICE in deciding whether to support the use of the EQ-5D-5L and its English value set. The authors point out the differences between the 3L and 5L, namely the descriptive systems and the value sets. Examples of the 5L descriptive system’s advantages are provided: a reduced ceiling effect, reduced clustering, better discriminative ability, and the benefits of doing away with the ‘confined to bed’ level of the mobility domain. Great! On to the value set. There are lots of differences here, with 3 main causes: the data, the preference elicitation methods, and the modelling methods. We can’t immediately determine whether these differences are improvements or not. The authors stress the point that any differences observed will be in large part due to quirks in the original 3L value set rather than in the 5L value set. Nevertheless, the commentary is broadly supportive of a cautionary approach to 5L adoption. I’m not. Time for that follow-up blog post.

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On the commensurability of efficiency

In this week’s round-up, I highlighted a recent paper in the journal Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. There are some interesting ideas presented regarding the challenge of decision-making at the individual patient level, and in particular a supposed trade-off between achieving efficiency and satisfying health need.

The gist of the argument is that these two ‘values’ are incommensurable in the sense that the comparative value of two choices is ambiguous where the achievement of efficiency and need satisfaction needs to be traded. In the journal round-up, I highlighted 2 criticisms. First, I suggested that efficiency and health need satisfaction are commensurable. Second, I suggested that the paper did not adequately tackle the special nature of microlevel decision-making. The author – Anders Herlitz – was gracious enough to respond to my comments with several tweets.

Here, I’d like to put forth my reasoning on the subject (albeit with an ignorance of the background literature on incommensurability and other matters of ethics).

Consider a machine gun

A machine gun is far more efficient than a pistol, right? Well, maybe. A machine gun can shoot more bullets than a pistol over a sustained period. Likewise, a doctor who can treat 50 patients per day is more efficient than a doctor who can treat 20 patients per day.

However, the premise of this entire discussion, as established by Herlitz, is values. Herlitz introduces efficiency as a value and not as some dispassionate indicator of return on input. When we are considering values – as we necessarily are when we are discussing decision-making and more generally ‘what matters’ – we cannot take the ‘more bullets’ approach to assessing efficiency.

That’s because ‘more bullets’ is not what we mean when we talk about the value of efficiency. The production function is fundamental to our understanding of efficiency as a value. Once values are introduced, it is plain to see that in the context of war (where value is attached to a greater number of deaths) a machine gun may very well be considered more efficient. However, bearing a machine gun is far less efficient than bearing a pistol in a civilian context because we value a situation that results in fewer deaths.

In this analogy, bullets are health care and deaths are (somewhat confusingly, I admit) health improvement. Treating more people is not better because we want to provide more health care, but because we want to improve people’s health (along with some other basket of values).

Efficiency only has value with respect to the outcome in whose terms it is defined, and is therefore always commensurable with that outcome. That is, the production function is an inherent and necessary component of an efficiency to which we attach value.

I believe that Herlitz’s idea of incommensurability could be a useful one. Different outcomes may well be incommensurable in the way described in the paper. But efficiency has no place in this discussion. The incommensurability Herlitz describes in his paper seems to be a simple conflict between utilitarianism and prioritarianism, though I don’t have the wherewithal to pursue that argument so I’ll leave it there!

Microlevel efficiency trade-offs

Having said all that, I do think there could be a special decision-making challenge regarding efficiency at the microlevel. And that might partly explain Herlitz’s suggestion that efficiency is incommensurable with other outcomes.

There could be an incommensurability between values that can be measured in their achievement at the individual level (e.g. health improvement) and values that aren’t measured with individual-level outcomes (e.g. prioritisation of more severe patients). Those two outcomes are incommensurable in the way Herlitz described, but the simple fact that we tend to think about the former as an efficiency argument and the latter as an equity argument is irrelevant. We could think about both in efficiency terms (for example, treating n patients of severity x is more efficient than treating n-1 patients of severity x, or n patients of severity x-1), we just don’t. The difficulty is that this equity argument is meaningless at the individual level because it relies on information about outcomes outside the microlevel. The real challenge at the microlevel, therefore, is to acknowledge scope for efficiency in all outcomes of value. The incommensurability that matters is between microlevel and higher-level assessments of value.

As an aside, I was surprised that the Rule of Rescue did not get a mention in the paper. This is a perfect example of a situation in which arguments that tend to be made on efficiency grounds are thrown out and another value (the duty to save an immediately endangered life) takes over. One doesn’t need to think very hard about how Rule of Rescue decision-making could be framed as efficient.

In short, efficiency is never incommensurable because it is never an end in itself. If you’re concerned with being more efficient for the sake of being more efficient then you are probably not making very efficient decisions.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 4th December 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.

Funding breakthrough therapies: a systematic review and recommendation. Health Policy Published 2nd December 2017

One of the (numerous) financial pressures on health care funders in the West is the introduction of innovative (and generally very expensive) new therapies. Some of these can be considered curative, which isn’t necessarily the best way for manufacturers to create a steady income. New funding arrangements have been proposed to facilitate patient access while maintaining financial sustainability. This article focuses on a specific group of innovative therapies known as ‘Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products’ (ATMPs), which includes gene therapies. The authors conducted a systematic review of papers proposing funding models and considered their appropriateness for ATMPs. There were 48 papers included in the review that proposed payment mechanisms for high-cost therapies. Three top-level groups were identified: i) financial agreements, ii) performance-based agreements, and iii) healthcoin (a tradable currency representing the value of outcomes). The different mechanisms are compared in terms of their feasibility, acceptability, burden, ‘financial attractiveness’ and their appeal to payers and manufacturers. Annuity payments are identified as relatively attractive compared to other options, but each mechanism is summarily shown to be imperfect in the ATMP context. So, instead, the authors propose an ATMP-specific fund. For UK readers, this will likely smell a bit too much like the disastrous Cancer Drugs Fund. It isn’t clear why such a programme would be superior to annuity payments or more inventive mechanisms, or even whether it would be theoretically sound. Thus, the proposal is not convincing.

Supply-side effects from public insurance expansions: evidence from physician labor markets. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 1st December 2017

Crazy though American health care may be, its inconsistency in coverage can make for good research fodder. The Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was set up in 1997 and then, when the initial money ran out 10 years later, the program was (eventually) expanded. In this study, the authors use the changes in CHIP to examine the impact of expanded public coverage on provider behaviour, namely; subspecialty training (which could become more attractive with a well-insured customer base), practice setting and prevailing wage offers. The data for the study relate to the physician labour market for New York state for 2002-2013, as collected in the Graduate Medical Education survey. A simple difference-in-differences analysis is conducted with reference to the 2009 CHIP expansion, controlling for physician demographics. Paediatricians are the treatment group and the control group is adult physician generalists (mostly internal medicine). 2009 seems to be associated with a step-change in the proportion of paediatricians choosing to subspecialise – an increased probability of about 8 percentage points. There is also an upward shift in the proportion of paediatricians entering private practice, with some (weak) evidence that there is an increased preference for rural areas. These changes don’t seem to be driven by relative wage increases, with no major change in trends. So it seems that the expanded coverage did have important supply-side effects. But the waters are muddy here. In particular, we have the Great Recession and Obamacare as possible alternative explanations. Though it’s difficult to come up with good reasons for why these might better explain the observed changes.

Reflections on the NICE decision to reject patient production losses. International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care [PubMedPublished 20th November 2017

When people conduct economic evaluations ‘from a societal perspective’, this often just means a health service perspective with productivity losses added. NICE explicitly exclude the inclusion of these production losses in health technology appraisals. This paper reviews the issues at play, focussing on the normative question of why they should (or should not) be included. Findings from a literature review are summarised with reference to the ethical, theoretical and policy questions. Unethical discrimination potentially occurs if people are denied health care on the basis of non-health-related characteristics, such as the ability to work. All else equal, should health care for men be prioritised over health care for women because men have higher wages? Are the unemployed less of a priority because they’re unemployed? The only basis on which to defend the efficiency of an approach that includes productivity losses seems to be a neoclassical welfarist one, which is hardly tenable in the context of health care. If we adopt the extra-welfarist understanding of opportunity cost as foregone health then there is really no place for production losses. The authors also argue that including production losses may be at odds with policy objectives, at least in the context of the NHS in the UK. Health systems based on privately-funded care or social insurance may have different priorities. The article concludes that taking account of production losses is at odds with the goal of health maximisation and therefore the purpose of the NHS in the UK. Personally, I think priority setting in health care should take a narrow health perspective. So I agree with the authors that production losses shouldn’t be included. I’m not sure this article will convince those who disagree, but it’s good to have a reference to vindicate NICE’s position.

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