Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 28th October 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.

Spatial competition and quality: evidence from the English family doctor market. Journal of Health Economics [RePEc] Published 17th October 2019

Researchers will never stop asking questions about the role of competition in health care. There’s a substantial body of literature now suggesting that greater competition in the context of regulated prices may bring some quality benefits. But with weak indicators of quality and limited generalisability, it isn’t a closed case. One context in which evidence has been lacking is in health care beyond the hospital. In the NHS, an individual’s choice of GP practice is perhaps the context in which quality can be observed and choice most readily (and meaningfully) exercised. That’s where this study comes in. Aside from the horrible format of a ‘proper economics’ paper (where we start with spoilers and climax with robustness tests), it’s a good read.

The study relies on a measure of competition based on the number of rival GPs within a 2km radius. Number of GPs, that is, rather than number of practices. This is important, as the number of GPs per practice has been increasing. About 75% of a practice’s revenues are linked to the number of patients registered, wherein lies the incentive to compete with other practices for patients. And, in this context, research has shown that patient choice is responsive to indicators of quality. The study uses data for 2005-2012 from all GP practices in England, making it an impressive data set.

The measures of quality come from the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) and the General Practice Patient Survey (GPPS) – the former providing indicators of clinical quality and the latter providing indicators of patient experience. A series of OLS regressions are run on the different outcome measures, with practice fixed effects and various characteristics of the population. The models show that all of the quality indicators are improved by greater competition, but the effect is very small. For example, an extra competing GP within a 2km radius results in 0.035% increase in the percentage of the population for whom the QOF indicators have been achieved. The effects are a little stronger for the patient satisfaction indicators.

The paper reports a bunch of important robustness checks. For instance, the authors try to test whether practices select their locations based on the patient casemix, finding no evidence that they do. The authors even go so far as to test the impact of a policy change, which resulted in an exogenous increase in the number of GPs in some areas but not others. The main findings seem to have withstood all the tests. They also try out a lagged model, which gives similar results.

The findings from this study slot in comfortably with the existing body of research on the role of competition in the NHS. More competition might help to achieve quality improvement, but it hardly seems worthy of dedicating much effort or, importantly, much expense to the cause.

Worth living or worth dying? The views of the general public about allowing disabled children to die. Journal of Medical Ethics [PhilPapers] [PubMed] Published 15th October 2019

Recent years have seen a series of cases in the UK where (usually very young) children have been so unwell and with such a severe prognosis that someone (usually a physician) has judged that continued treatment is not warranted and that the child should be allowed to die. These cases have generated debate and outrage in the media. But what do people actually think?

This study recruited members of the public in the UK (n=130) to an online panel and asked about the decisions that participants would support. The survey had three parts. The first part set out six scenarios of hospitalised infants, which varied in terms of the infants’ physical and sensory abilities, cognitive capacity, level of suffering, and future prospects. Some of the cases approximated real cases that have received media coverage, and the participants were asked whether they thought that withdrawing treatment was justified in each case. In the second part of the survey, participants were asked about the factors that they believed were important in making such decisions. In the third part, participants answered a few questions about themselves and answered the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale.

The authors set up the concept of a ‘life not worth living’, based on the idea that net future well-being is ‘negative’, and supposing the individual’s own judgement were they able to provide it. In the first part of the survey, 88% indicated that life would be worse than death in at least one of the cases. In such cases, 65% thought that treatment withdrawal was ethically obligatory, while 33% thought that either decision was acceptable. Pain was considered the most important factor in making such decisions, followed by the presence of pleasure. Perhaps predictably for health economists familiar with the literature, about 42% of people thought that resources should be considered in the decision, while 40% thought they shouldn’t.

The paper includes an extensive discussion, with plenty of food for thought. In particular, it discusses the ways in which the findings might inform the debate between the ‘zero line view’, whereby treatment should be withdrawn at the point where life has no benefit, and the ‘threshold view’, which establishes a grey zone of ethical uncertainty, in which either decision is ethically acceptable. To some extent, the findings of this study support the need for a threshold approach. Ethical questions are rarely black and white.

How is the trade-off between adverse selection and discrimination risk affected by genetic testing? Theory and experiment. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 1st October 2019

A lot of people are worried about how knowledge of their genetic information could be used against them. The most obvious scenario is one in which insurers increase premiums – or deny coverage altogether – on the basis of genetic risk factors. There are two key regulatory options in this context – disclosure duty, whereby individuals are obliged to tell insurers about the outcome of genetic tests, or consent law, whereby people can keep the findings to themselves. This study explores how people behave under each of these regulations.

The authors set up a theoretical model in which individuals can choose whether to purchase a genetic test that can identify them as being either high-risk or low-risk of developing some generic illness. The authors outline utility functions under disclosure duty and consent law. Under disclosure duty, individuals face a choice between the certainty of not knowing their risk and receiving pooled insurance premiums, or a lottery in which they have to disclose their level of risk and receive a higher or lower premium accordingly. Under consent law, individuals will only reveal their test results if they are at low risk, thus securing lower premiums and contributing to adverse selection. As a result, individuals will be more willing to take a test under consent law than under disclosure duty, all else equal.

After setting out their model (at great length), the authors go on to describe an experiment that they conducted with 67 economics students, to elicit preferences within and between the different regulatory settings. The experiment was set up in a very generic way, not related to health at all. Participants were presented with a series of tasks across which the parameters representing the price of the test and the pooled premium were varied. All of the authors’ hypotheses were supported by the experiment. More people took tests under consent law. Higher test prices reduce the number of people taking tests. If prices are high enough, people will prefer disclosure duty. The likelihood that people take tests under consent law is increasing with the level of adverse selection. And people are very sensitive to the level of discrimination risk under disclosure duty.

It’s an interesting study, but I’m not sure how much it can tell us about genetic testing. Framing the experiment as entirely unrelated to health seems especially unwise. People’s risk preferences may be very different in the domain of real health than in the hypothetical monetary domain. In the real world, there’s a lot more at stake.

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Thesis Thursday: Thomas Allen

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 Thomas Allen who graduated with a PhD from the University of Manchester. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
The impact of provider incentives on professionals and patients
Supervisors
Matt Sutton, William Whittaker
Repository link
https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/item/?pid=uk-ac-man-scw:296844

Let’s dive straight in: what was the most important or overarching finding of your research?

My thesis focused on a large financial incentive scheme for UK GPs. So the thesis is a collection of UK studies, but I think the main findings can be generalised reasonably well.

Two of these studies actually looked at how the non-financial incentives of the scheme affected GPs, namely reputation and peer effects. I found reputation became more important, compared to revenue, a few years into the scheme. My explanation for this: reputation matters once you can observe performance benchmarks.

As for peer effects, the focus was on how practices react to their peer groups getting larger, this was caused by mergers in PCTs (groups of practices). You might expect peer effects to shrink when the group gets larger and this is what I found. Practice performance is also pulled down by poor peers more than it is pulled up by good peers. An analogy to merging a good classroom with a bad classroom is helpful to imagine.

There is quite a lot of variation (at GP level) in the amount of income that was linked to performance, 10-30% in most cases, so the third study exploits this variation. The size of this exposure to performance pay does affect GPs working lives – their job satisfaction, working hours, intentions to quit etc.

The final study was pretty novel as it linked patient reported quality with practice reported quality. It seemed to be the case that as practices improved on the incentivised areas of quality (e.g. blood pressure test) they got worse on the non-incentivised areas (communication).

What were the main methodologies that you used and which researchers’ work did your study most depend on?

It was a quantitative thesis so various regression methods were used. I’ll admit there was nothing particularly special or new with the methods used, they were standard methods but I think they were applied in interesting ways. For example, two studies linked existing datasets in new ways so I could answer questions which would have otherwise been impossible, probably. One method used which is not so common was the continuous difference in differences from the job satisfaction chapter. It’s been used before by David Card and Carol Propper. It can be used when you have a continuous treatment variable, instead of the typical treatment vs control situation. Everyone is treated but there is some exogenous factor deciding the amount of treatment.

I’m not sure there is one researcher that my study most depended on. The four different empirical chapters were influenced by slightly different literatures. Two big influences were systematic reviews of financial incentives (Scott et al. 2011) and of the scheme which I studied (Steel & Willems 2010). Both helped to identify areas where I could add to the existing literature.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered; was there anything odd or unexpected?

Lots of theories would suggest an effect of pay for performance on job satisfaction and working lives. For example, large financial incentives should crowd out internal motivation and so reduce job satisfaction. Pay for performance appeals more to risk seeking individuals; those who are risk averse should feel uncomfortable as more income is linked to performance. Pay for performance can often result in wage dispersion, where incomes differ because some individuals perform better, this is usually linked to lower job satisfaction. A section of Chapter 6 is dedicated to these theories but I found no effect of pay for performance on GPs’ job satisfaction or working lives. Even specific areas you would expect to be affected weren’t, like satisfaction with choice of working methods or levels of autonomy.

This was certainly an unexpected result but I think still very interesting. I was able to publish this quite recently in Social Science & Medicine.

What was the biggest challenge that you encountered during your PhD, and did it change the direction of your research?

I started to answer this saying I didn’t have any big challenges but then a few came to me. I guess looking back they don’t seem as significant as they were at the time.

In the first few weeks I realised one of the studies from the PhD proposal couldn’t be done – basically I wanted to use PROMs to analyse a policy but had glossed over the difference between hip fractures and hip replacements, which seems very obvious now. I had to think of Plan B.

Plan B turned into Plan C around the end of my second year. I was going to try linking three datasets to measure the impact of pay for performance using administrative data, patient data and GP data. Imagine a Venn diagram of the overlapping samples from these three datasets. In the end the sample covered by all three was too small.

I’m pleased with how the thesis turned out, these challenges ended up improving the finished product.

Have you any words of wisdom for any researchers who might be embarking on a similar programme of research?

On this research area… The incentive scheme I focused on, the QOF, has been around for 12 years. If you have a new research question maybe someone else already tried it and it doesn’t work. Review the literature well and talk to those who have done work on the scheme. My internal examiner was a GP. She gave some great insight which would have been helpful at the start of the PhD not the end! So if you can, talk with those affected by the incentive or policy you are evaluating – it might not work in the way described in policy documents.

On PhDs generally… Choose your supervisors wisely – they are more than just a boss/manager, so try and find someone you think you can work with, not for. If you can, have a professor and a less senior person. Matt and Will were a great combo. In the end you might find you are sick of the PhD topic, so make sure you at least start off liking it. Don’t just pick it because it is the only one going. Try and do some extra work: teaching, collaborate with others, blogs. But make sure you gain from it in some way. Plan your time well at the start. You won’t stick to it, but at least you’ll know how far you are behind.

Paul Mitchell’s journal round-up for 26th December 2016

Every Monday (even if it’s Boxing Day here in the UK) 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.

Out-migration and attrition of physicians and dentists before and after EU accession (2003 and 2011): the case of Hungary. European Journal of Health Economics [PubMedPublished 2nd December 2016

Medical staff migration is an important cross-national policy issue given the international shortage of supply of doctors to meet healthcare demand. This study uses a large administrative survey collected in Hungary from 2004-2011 and focuses on the trends of medical doctors (GPs, specialists, dentists) since Hungary joined the EU in 2004 and the introduction of full freedom of movement between Hungary with Austria and Germany in 2011. The author conducted a time-to-event analysis with monthly collection of data on a person’s occupation used as a guide for outward-migration. A competing-risks model was used to also consider medical doctors exiting the profession, becoming inactive or dying. From the 18,266 medical doctors found in this sample over the nine year period, 12% migrated, 17% exited the profession and 14% became inactive. A five-fold increase in migration was seen when the restrictions on freedom of movement between Hungary and Austria/Germany were lifted, a worrying sign of brain drain from Hungary. For those who stayed but exited the profession, relative income is argued to have been a contributory factor, with incomes increasing by on average 40% in their new line of work (although this does not account for the “thank you money” received by doctors in Hungary for healthcare access). Generous maternity leave was argued to play a key role in absence from employment. A recognised limitation in this study is the inability to conduct robust analysis on the migration patterns of new medical graduates who are likely to be more prone to migration than their established colleagues (estimated to be 40% of all medical graduates in Hungary between 2007-2010 who migrated, before restrictions on freedom of movement between Austria and Germany were lifted). Nonetheless, the study still manages to shine a light on the external (competing against countries with larger economies) but also the internal (“attrition and feminisation of workforce”) challenges to national doctor staffing policy.

Does the proportion of pay linked to performance affect the job satisfaction of general practitioners? Social Science & Medicine [PubMedPublished 24th November 2016

The impact of pay for performance (P4P) on healthcare practice has been subject to much debate surrounding the pros and cons of incentives for medical staff to achieve specific goals. This study focuses on the impact that the introduction of the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) for GPs in the UK in 2004 had on their subsequent job satisfaction. Job satisfaction for GPs is argued to be an important topic area due to it having an important role in retaining GPs and the quality of care they provide to their patients. Using linked data from the the GP Worklife Survey and the QOF, that rewards GPs performance based on clinical, organisation, additional services and patient experience indicators, across three time points (2004, 2005 and 2008), the authors model the relationship between P4P exposure (i.e. the proportion of income related to performance) and job satisfaction. Using a continuous difference-in-difference model with a random effects regression, the authors find that P4P exposure has no significant effect on job satisfaction after 1 and 4 years following the introduction of the QOF P4P system. The introduction of the QOF did lead to a large increase in GP life satisfaction; this is likely to be due to the large increase in average income for GPs following the introduction of QOF. The authors argue that their findings suggest GP job satisfaction is unlikely to be affected by changes in P4P exposure, so long as the final income the GP receives remains constant. Given the generous increases on GP final income from the initial QOF, it remains to be seen how generalisable these results would be to P4P systems that did not lead to such large increases in staff income.

Country-level cost-effectiveness thresholds: initial estimates and the need for further research. Value in Health [PubMed] Published 14th December 2016

National thresholds used to determine if a health intervention is cost-effective have been under scrutiny in the UK in recent years. It has been argued on the grounds of healthcare opportunity costs that the NICE £20,000-30,000 per QALY gained threshold is too high, with an estimate of £13,000 per QALY gain proposed instead. Until now, less attention has been paid to international cost-effectiveness thresholds recommended by the WHO, who have argued for a threshold between one and three times the GDP of a country. This study provides preliminary estimates of cost-effectiveness thresholds across a number of countries with varying levels of national income. Using estimates from the recent £13,000 per QALY gain threshold study in England, a ratio between the supply-side threshold with the consumption value of health was estimated and used as a basis to calculate other national thresholds. The authors use a range of income elasticity estimates for the value placed on a statistical life to take account of uncertainty around these values. The results suggest that even the lower end of the WHO recommended threshold range of 1x national GDP is likely to be an overestimate in most countries. It would appear something closer to 50% of GDP may be a better estimate, albeit with a great amount of uncertainty and variation between high and low income countries. The importance of these estimates according to the authors is that the application of the current WHO thresholds could lead to policies that reduce instead of increase population health. However, the threshold estimates from this study rely on a number of assumptions based on UK data that may not provide an accurate estimate when setting cost-effectiveness thresholds at an international level.

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