Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 2nd October 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.

The path to longer and healthier lives for all Africans by 2030: the Lancet Commission on the future of health in sub-Saharan Africa. The Lancet [PubMedPublished 13th September 2017

The African continent has the highest rates of economic growth, the fastest growing populations and rates of urbanisation, but also the highest burden of disease. The challenges for public health and health care provision are great. It is no surprise then that this Lancet commission on the future of health in Sub-Saharan Africa runs to 57 pages yet still has some notable absences. In the space of a few hundred words, it would be impossible to fully discuss the topics in this tome, these will appear in future blog posts. For now, I want to briefly discuss a lack of consideration of the importance of political economy in the Commission’s report. For example, the report notes the damaging effects of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs in the 70s and 80s. These led to a dismantling of much of the public sector in indebted African nations in order for them to qualify for further loans. However, these issues have not gone away. Despite strongly emphasizing that countries in Africa must increase their health spending, it does not mention that many countries spend much more servicing debt than on public health and health care. Kenya, for example, will soon no longer qualify for aid as it becomes a middle-income country, and yet it spends almost double (around $6 billion) servicing its debt than it does on health care (around $3 billion). Debt reform and relief may be a major step towards increasing health expenditure. The inequalities in access to basic health services reflect the disparities in income and wealth both between and within countries. The growth of slums across the continent is stark evidence of this. Residents of these communities, despite often facing the worst exposure to major disease risk factors, are often not recognised by authorities and cannot access health services. Even where health services are available there are still difficulties with access. A lack of regulation and oversight can lead the growth of a rentier class within slums as those with access to small amounts of capital, land, or property act as petty landlords. So while some in slum areas can afford the fees for basic health services, the poorest still face a barrier even when services are available. These people are also those who have little access to decent water and sanitation or education and have the highest risk of disease. Finally, the lack of incentives for trained doctors and medical staff to work in poor or rural areas is also identified as a key problem. Many doctors either leave for wealthier countries or work in urban areas. Doctors are often a powerful interest group and can influence macro health policy, distorting it to favour richer urban areas. Political solutions are required, as well as the public health interventions more widely discussed. The Commission’s report is extensive and worth the time to read for anyone with an interest in the subject matter. What also becomes clear upon reading it is the lack of solid evidence on health systems and what works and does not work. From an economic perspective, much of the evidence pertaining to health system functioning and efficiency is still just the results from country-level panel data regressions, which tell us very little about what is actually happening. This results in us being able to identify areas needed for reform with very little idea of how.

The relationship of health insurance and mortality: is lack of insurance deadly? Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 19th September 2017

One sure-fire way of increasing your chances of publishing in a top-ranked journal is to do something on a hot political topic. In the UK this has been seven-day services, as well as other issues relating to deficiencies of supply. In the US, health insurance is right up there with the Republicans trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. This paper systematically reviews the literature on the relationship between health insurance coverage and the risk of mortality. The theory being that health insurance permits access to medical services and therefore treatment and prevention measures that reduce the risk of death. Many readers will be familiar with the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, in which the US state of Oregon distributed access to increased Medicaid expansion by lottery, therein creating an RCT. This experiment, which takes a top spot in the review, estimated that those who had ‘won’ the lottery had a mortality rate 0.032 percentage points lower than the ‘losers’, whose mortality rate was 0.8%; a relative reduction of around 4%. Similar results were found for the quasi-experimental studies included, and slightly larger effects were found in cohort follow-up studies. These effects are small. But then so is the baseline. Most of these studies only examined non-elderly, non-disabled people, who would otherwise not qualify for any other public health insurance. For people under 45 in the US, the leading cause of death is unintentional injury, and its only above this age that cancer becomes the leading cause of death. If you suffer major trauma in the US you will (for the most part) be treated in an ER insured or uninsured, even if you end up with a large bill afterwards. So it’s no surprise that the effects of insurance coverage on mortality are very small for these people. This is probably the inappropriate endpoint to be looking at for this study. Indeed, the Oregon experiment found that the biggest differences were in reduced out-of-pocket expenses and medical debt, and improved self-reported health. The review’s conclusion that, “The odds of dying among the insured relative to the uninsured is 0.71 to 0.97,” is seemingly unwarranted. If they want to make a political point about the need for insurance, they’re looking in the wrong place.

Smoking, expectations, and health: a dynamic stochastic model of lifetime smoking behavior. Journal of Political Economy [RePEcPublished 24th August 2017

I’ve long been sceptical of mathematical models of complex health behaviours. The most egregious of which is often the ‘rational addiction’ literature. Originating with the late Gary Becker, the rational addiction model, in essence, assumes that addiction is a rational choice made by utility maximising individuals, whose preferences alter with use of a particular drug. The biggest problem I find with this approach is that it is completely out of touch with the reality of addiction and drug dependence, and makes absurd assumptions about the preferences of addicts. Nevertheless, it has spawned a sizable literature. And, one may argue that the model is useful if it makes accurate predictions, regardless of the assumptions underlying it. On this front, I have yet to be convinced. This paper builds a rational addiction-type model for smoking to examine whether learning of one’s health risks reduces smoking. As an illustration of why I dislike this method of understanding addictive behaviours, the authors note that “…the model cannot explain why individuals start smoking. […] The estimated preference parameters in the absence of a chronic illness suggest that, for a never smoker under the age of 25, there is no incentive to begin smoking because the marginal utility of smoking is negative.” But for many, social and cultural factors simply explain why young people start smoking. The weakness of the deductive approach to social science seems to rear its head, but like I said, the aim here may be the development of good predictive models. And, the model does appear to predict smoking behaviour well. However, it is all in-sample prediction, and with the number of parameters it is not surprising it predicts well. This discussion is not meant to be completely excoriating. What is interesting is the discussion and attempt to deal with the endogeneity of smoking – people in poor health may be more likely to smoke and so the estimated effects of smoking on longevity may be overestimated. As a final point of contention though, I’m still trying to work out what the “addictive stock of smoking capital” is.


Lazaros Andronis’s journal round-up for 4th September 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.

The effect of spending cuts on teen pregnancy. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published July 2017

High teenage pregnancy rates are an important concern that features high in many countries’ social policy agendas. In the UK, a country which has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, efforts to tackle the issue have been spearheaded by the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, an initiative aiming to halve under-18 pregnancy rates by offering access to sex education and contraception. However, the recent spending cuts have led to reductions in grants to local authorities, many of which have, in turn, limited or cut a number of teenage pregnancy-related programmes. This has led to vocal opposition by politicians and organisations, who argue that cuts jeopardise the reductions in teenage pregnancy rates seen in previous years. In this paper, Paton and Wright set out to examine whether this is the case; that is, whether cuts to Teenage Pregnancy Strategy-related services have had an impact on teenage pregnancy rates. To do so, the authors used panel data from 149 local authorities in England collected between 2009 and 2014. To capture changes in teenage pregnancy rates across local authorities over the specified period, the authors used a fixed effects model which assumed that under-18 conception rates are a function of annual expenditure on teenage pregnancy services per 13-17 year female in the local authority, and a set of other socioeconomic variables acting as controls. Area and year dummies were also included in the model to account for unobservable effects that relate to particular years and localities and a number of additional analysis were run to get around spurious correlations between expenditure and pregnancy rates. Overall, findings showed that areas which implemented bigger cuts to teenage pregnancy-targeting programmes have, on average, seen larger drops in teenage pregnancy rates. However, these drops are, in absolute terms, small (e.g. a 10% reduction in expenditure is associated with a 0.25% decrease in teenage conception rates). Various explanations can be put forward to interpret these findings, one of which is that cuts might have trimmed off superfluous or underperforming elements of the programme. If this is the case, Paton and Wright’s findings offer some support to arguments that spending cuts may not always be bad for the public.

Young adults’ experiences of neighbourhood smoking-related norms and practices: a qualitative study exploring place-based social inequalities in smoking. Social Science & Medicine [PubMed] Published September 2017

Smoking is a universal problem affecting millions of people around the world and Canada’s young adults are no exception. As in most countries, smoking prevalence and initiation is highest amongst young groups, which is bad news, as many people who start smoking at a young age continue to smoke throughout adulthood. Evidence suggests that there is a strong socioeconomic gradient in smoking, which can be seen in the fact that smoking prevalence is unequally distributed according to education and neighbourhood-level deprivation, being a greater problem in more deprived areas. This offers an opportunity for local-level interventions that may be more effective than national strategies. Though, to come up with such interventions, policy makers need to understand how neighbourhoods might shape, encourage or tolerate certain attitudes towards smoking. To understand this, Glenn and colleagues saw smoking as a practice that is closely related to local smoking norms and social structures, and sought to get young adult smokers’ views on how their neighbourhood affects their attitudes towards smoking. Within this context, the authors carried out a number of focus groups with young adult smokers who lived in four different neighbourhoods, during which they asked questions such as “do you think your neighbourhood might be encouraging or discouraging people to smoke?” Findings showed that some social norms, attitudes and practices were common among neighbourhoods of the same SES. Participants from low-SES neighbourhoods reported more tolerant and permissive local smoking norms, whereas in more affluent neighbourhoods, participants felt that smoking was more contained and regulated. While young smokers from high SES neighbourhoods expressed some degree of alignment and agency with local smoking norms and practices, smokers in low SES described smoking as inevitable in their neighbourhood. Of interest is how individuals living in different SES areas saw anti-smoking regulations: while young smokers in affluent areas advocate social responsibility (and downplay the role of regulations), their counterparts in poorer areas called for more protection and spoke in favour of greater government intervention and smoking restrictions. Glenn and colleagues’ findings serve to highlight the importance of context in designing public health measures, especially when such measures affect different groups in entirely different ways.

Cigarette taxes, smoking—and exercise? Health Economics [PubMed] Published August 2017

Evidence suggests that rises in cigarette taxes have a positive effect on smoking reduction and/or cessation. However, it is also plausible that the effect of tax hikes extends beyond smoking, to decisions about exercise. To explore whether this proposition is supported by empirical evidence, Conway and Niles put together a simple conceptual framework, which assumes that individuals aim to maximise the utility they get from exercise, smoking, health (or weight management) and other goods subject to market inputs (e.g. medical care, diet aids) and time and budget constraints. Much of the data for this analysis came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) in the US, which includes survey participants’ demographic characteristics (age, gender), as well as answers to questions about physical activities and exercise (e.g. intensity and time per week spent on activities) and smoking behaviour (e.g. current smoking status, number of cigarettes smoked per day). Survey data were subsequently combined with changes in cigarette taxes and other state-level variables. Conway and Niles’s results suggest that increased cigarette costs reduce both smoking and exercise, with the decline in exercise being more pronounced among heavy and regular smokers. However, the direction of the effect varied according to one’s age and smoking experience (e.g. higher cigarette cost increased physical activity among recent quitters), which highlights the need for caution in drawing conclusions about the exact mechanism that underpins this relationship. Encouraging smoking cessation and promoting physical exercise are important and desirable public health objectives, but, as Conway and Niles’s findings suggest, pursuing both of them at the same time may not always be plausible.


Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 14th August 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.

Does paying service providers by results improve recovery outcomes for drug misusers in treatment in England? Addiction [PubMedPublished 10th August 2017

‘Getting what you pay for’ is a fundamentally attractive funding model, which is why we see lots of pay for performance (P4P) initiatives cropping up in the NHS. But P4P plans can go awry. This study considers an experimental setting in which 8 areas participated in P4P pilots for drug misuse treatment, from 2012-2014. Payments were aligned with 3 national priorities: i) abstinence, ii) reduced offending and iii) improved health and well-being. The participating areas allocated differing proportions of payments to the P4P model, between 10% and 100%. Data were drawn from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System, which includes information on drug use, assessment and interventions received. Other national sources were used to identify criminal activity and mortality rates. Drug misusers attending treatment services during the 2 years before and after the introduction of the P4P scheme were included in the study. Using a difference-in-differences analysis, the researchers compared outcomes in the 8 participating areas with those in 143 non-participating areas. Separate multilevel regression models were used for a set of outcomes, each controlling for a variety of individual-level characteristics. The authors analysed ‘treatment journeys’, of which there were around 20,000 for those in participating areas and 280,000 for those in non-participating areas; roughly half before the introduction and half after. The results don’t look good for P4P. Use of opiates, crack cocaine and injecting increased. Treatment initiation increased in non-participating areas but decreased in participating areas. Moreover, longer waiting times were observed in participating areas as well as more unplanned discharges. P4P was associated with people being less likely to successfully complete treatment within 12 months. In P4P’s favour, there was evidence that abstinence increased. I’d’ve liked to have seen some attempt at matching between the areas, given that there was an element of self-selection into the scheme. Or at least, better control for the characteristics of the areas before P4P was introduced. This paper isn’t quite the final nail in the coffin. I don’t see P4P disappearing anytime soon. There’s a lot to be learnt from the paper’s discussion, which outlines some of the likely reasons and mechanisms underlying the findings. Commissioners should take note.

The short- and long-run effects of smoking cessation on alcohol consumption. International Journal of Health Economics and Management [PubMedPublished 7th August 2017

Anecdotally, it seems as if smoking and drinking are complementary behaviours. Generally, the evidence suggests that this is true. Smoking cessation programmes may, therefore, have value in their ability to reduce alcohol consumption (and vice versa). But only if the relationship is causal. This study seeks to add to that causal evidence. Using data from 5887 individuals in the Lung Health Study, the author runs a two-stage least squares estimation, with randomisation to smoking cessation treatment as an instrumental variable for smoking status. In the short term, there is some evidence that smokers tend to drink more (especially men). But findings in the longer term, up to 5 years, are more persuasive. It’s unfortunate that the (largely incoherent) rational addiction theory makes an appearance and that the findings are presented as supportive of it. A stopped clock is right twice a day. In line with rational addiction theory, the long-term relationship is measured in terms of a ‘smoking stock’, which is an aggregate measure of smoking behaviour over the 5 year period. Smoking and drinking are found to be complementary in the long term. Crucially, the extent of their complementarity is associated with particular factors. For example, people who smoke more cigarettes or who abstain for longer exhibit larger reductions in alcohol consumption when they stop smoking. People who smoke relatively few cigarettes per day do not drink more alcohol. Those smoking 6-10 per day consume around 1 extra drink per week compared with non-smokers. Quitting for 5 years can reduce alcohol consumption by more than 50%. In the long run, the effect is more pronounced for women and for people who are married. This highlights important opportunities for targeted public policy, which could achieve a win-win in terms of reducing both cigarette and alcohol consumption.

Time for a change in how new antibiotics are reimbursed: development of an insurance framework for funding new antibiotics based on a policy of risk mitigation. Health Policy Published 5th August 2017

Antibiotics have become a key component of health care, but antimicrobial resistance threatens their usefulness and we don’t see new antibiotics in the pipeline to help overcome this. It’s a fundamentally difficult problem; we want new antibiotics but we want to use them as sparingly as possible. Antibiotic development is relatively unattractive (financially) to pharmaceutical companies. Provision of research funding and regulatory changes haven’t solved the problem to date. This paper considers why this might be the case, and explores 2 alternative approaches: a premium price model and an insurance-type model. Essentially, the authors conduct a spreadsheet analysis to compare the alternative models with a base case of no incentives. The expected net present value of the base case was negative (to the tune of about $1.5 billion), demonstrating why much-needed new antibiotics aren’t being developed. Current incentives – including public-private funding partnerships and market exclusivity – are also shown to fail to reach a positive net present value. The premium price model, whereby there is an enhanced price per unit, is not particularly attractive. The daily cost of the resulting antibiotics would likely be too high, and manufacturers’ pursuit of profit would be at odds with conservative prescribing. Furthermore, it exposes areas experiencing outbreaks to serious financial risk. The insurance model, which involved an annual fee paid by each healthcare system (to manufacturers), is more promising. Pharmaceutical companies would be insured against low prices and variable use and health systems would be insured against a lack of antibiotics and the risk of an infection outbreak. The key feature here is that manufacturers’ revenues are de-linked from sales volume. This is important when we consider the need for conservative prescribing. The authors estimate that the necessary fee (for the global market) would be around $262 million per year, or $114 million if combined with current funding and regulatory incentives. Of course, these findings are based on major assumptions about infection rates, research costs and plenty besides. A number of sensitivity analyses are conducted that highlight uncertainty about what the insurance fee might need to be in the future. I think this uncertainty is somewhat understated – there are far more sensitivity and scenario analyses that would be warranted if such a policy were being seriously considered. Nevertheless, pooling risk in an insurance model looks like a promising strategy that’s worthy of further investigation and piloting.