Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 31st December 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.

Perspectives of patients with cancer on the quality-adjusted life year as a measure of value in healthcare. Value in Health Published 29th December 2018

Patients should have the opportunity to understand how decisions are made about which treatments they are and are not allowed to use, given their coverage. This study reports on a survey of cancer patients and survivors, with the aim of identifying patients’ awareness, understanding, and opinions about the QALY as a measure of value.

Participants were recruited from a (presumably US-based) patient advocacy group and 774 mostly well-educated, mostly white, mostly women responded. The online survey asked about cancer status and included a couple of measures of health literacy. Fewer than 7% of participants had ever heard of the QALY – more likely for those with greater health literacy. The survey explained the QALY to the participants and then asked if the concept of the QALY makes sense. Around half said it did and 24% thought that it was a good way to measure value in health care. The researchers report a variety of ‘significant’ differences in tendencies to understand or support the use of QALYs, but I’m not convinced that they’re meaningful because the differences aren’t big and the samples are relatively small.

At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to provide opinions on QALYs and value in health care. 165 people provided responses and these were coded and analysed qualitatively. The researchers identified three themes from this one free-text question: i) measuring value, ii) opinions on QALY, and iii) value in health care and decision making. I’m not sure that they’re meaningful themes that help us to understand patients’ views on QALYs. A significant proportion of respondents rejected the idea of using numbers to quantify value in health care. On the other hand, some suggested that the QALY could be a useful decision aid for patients. There was opposition to ‘external decision makers’ having any involvement in health care decision making. Unless you’re paying for all of your care out of pocket, that’s tough luck. But the most obvious finding from the qualitative analysis is that respondents didn’t understand what QALYs were for. That’s partly because health economists in general need to be better at communicating concepts like the QALY. But I think it’s also in large part because the authors failed to provide a clear explanation. They didn’t even use my lovely Wikipedia graphic. Many of the points made by respondents are entirely irrelevant to the appropriateness of QALYs as they’re used (or in the case of the US, aren’t yet used) in practice. For example, several discussed the use of QALYs in clinical decision making. Patients think that they should maintain autonomy, which is fair enough but has nothing to do with how QALYs are used to assess health technologies.

QALYs are built on the idea of trade-offs. They measure the trade-off between life extension and life improvement. They are used to guide trade-offs between different treatments for different people. But the researchers didn’t explain how or why QALYs are used to make trade-offs, so the elicited views aren’t well-informed.

Measuring multivariate risk preferences in the health domain. Journal of Health Economics Published 27th December 2018

Health preferences research is now a substantial field in itself. But there’s still a lot of work left to be done on understanding risk preferences with respect to health. Gradually, we’re coming round to the idea that people tend to be risk-averse. But risk preferences aren’t (necessarily) so simple. Recent research has proposed that ‘higher order’ preferences such as prudence and temperance play a role. A person exhibiting univariate prudence for longevity would be better able to cope with risk if they are going to live longer. Univariate temperance is characterised by a preference for prospects that disaggregate risk across different possible outcomes. Risk preferences can also be multivariate – across health and wealth, for example – determining the relationship between univariate risk preferences and other attributes. These include correlation aversion, cross-prudence, and cross-temperance. Many articles from the Arthur Attema camp demand a great deal of background knowledge. This paper isn’t an exception, but it does provide a very clear and intuitive description of the various kinds of uni- and multivariate risk preferences that the researchers are considering.

For this study, an experiment was conducted with 98 people, who were asked to make 69 choices, corresponding to 3 choices about each risk preference trait being tested, for both gains and losses. Participants were told that they had €240,000 in wealth and 40 years of life to play with. The number of times that an individual made choices in line with a particular trait was used as an indicator of their strength of preference.

For gains, risk aversion was common for both wealth and longevity, and prudence was a common trait. There was no clear tendency towards temperance. For losses, risk aversion and prudence tended to neutrality. For multivariate risk preferences, a majority of people were correlation averse for gains and correlation seeking for losses. For gains, 76% of choices were compatible with correlation aversion, suggesting that people prefer to disaggregate fixed wealth and health gains. For losses, the opposite was true in 68% of choices. There was evidence for cross-prudence in wealth gains but not longevity gains, suggesting that people prefer health risk if they have higher wealth. For losses, the researchers observed cross-prudence and cross-temperance neutrality. The authors go on to explore associations between different traits.

A key contribution is in understanding how risk preferences differ in the health domain as compared with the monetary domain (which is what most economists study). Conveniently, there are a lot of similarities between risk preferences in the two domains, suggesting that health economists can learn from the wider economics literature. Risk aversion and prudence seem to apply to longevity as well as monetary gains, with a shift to neutrality in losses. The potential implications of these findings are far-reaching, but this is just a small experimental study. More research needed (and anticipated).

Prospective payment systems and discretionary coding—evidence from English mental health providers. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 27th December 2018

If you’ve conducted an economic evaluation in the context of mental health care in England, you’ll have come across mental health care clusters. Patients undergoing mental health care are allocated to one of 20 clusters, classed as either ‘psychotic’, ‘non-psychotic’, or ‘organic’, which forms the basis of an episodic payment model. In 2013/14, these episodes were associated with an average cost of between £975 and £9,354 per day. Doctors determine the clusters and the clusters determine reimbursement. Perverse incentives abound. Or do they?

This study builds on the fact that patients are allocated by clinical teams with guidance from the algorithm-based Mental Health Clustering Tool (MHCT). Clinical teams might exhibit upcoding, whereby patients are allocated to clusters that attract a higher price than that recommended by the MHCT. Data were analysed for 148,471 patients from the Mental Health Services Data Set for 2011-2015. For each patient, their allocated cluster is known, along with a variety of socioeconomic indicators and the HoNoS and SARN instruments, which go into the MHCT algorithm. Mixed-effects logistic regression was used to look at whether individual patients were or were not allocated to the cluster recommended as ‘best fit’ by the MHCT, controlling for patient and provider characteristics. Further to this, multilevel multinomial logit models were used to categorise decisions that don’t match the MHCT as either under- or overcoding.

Average agreement across clusters between the MHCT and clinicians was 36%. In most cases, patients were allocated to a cluster either one step higher or one step lower in terms of the level of need, and there isn’t an obvious tendency to overcode. The authors are able to identify a few ways in which observable provider and patient characteristics influence the tendency to under- or over-cluster patients. For example, providers with higher activity are less likely to deviate from the MHCT best fit recommendation. However, the dominant finding – identified by using median odds ratios for the probability of a mismatch between two random providers – seems to be that unobserved heterogeneity determines variation in behaviour.

The study provides clues about the ways in which providers could manipulate coding to their advantage and identifies the need for further data collection for a proper assessment. But reimbursement wasn’t linked to clustering during the time period of the study, so it remains to be seen how clinicians actually respond to these potentially perverse incentives.

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