Simon McNamara’s journal round-up for 8th April 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.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, social values and healthcare priority setting. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine [PubMed] Published 2nd April 2019

As is traditional, this week’s round-up starts with an imaginary birthday party. After much effort, we have finally managed to light the twenty candles, have agreed our approach to the distribution of the cake, and are waiting in anticipation of the entrance of the birthday “quasi-autonomous non-governmental body”. The door opens. You clear your throat. Here we go…

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday dear National Institute for Health and Care Excellence,

Happy Birthday to you.

NICE smiles happily. It is no longer a teenager. It has made it to 20 – despite its parents challenging it a few times (cough, Cancer Drug Fund, cough). After the candles have been blown out, someone at the back shouts: “Speech! Speech!”. NICE coughs, thanks everyone politely, and (admittedly slight strangely) takes the opportunity to announce that they are revising their “Social Value Judgements” paper – a document that outlines the principles they use to develop guidance. They then proceed to circle the room, proudly handing out draft copies of the new document- “The principles that guide the development of NICE guidance and standards” (PDF). They look excited. Your fellow guests start to read.

“Surely not?”, “What the … ?”, “Why?” – they don’t seem pleased. You jump into the document. All of this is about process. Where are all the bits about justice, and inequalities, and bioethics, and the rest? “Why have you taken out loads of the good stuff?” you ask. “This is too vague, too procedural”. Your disappointment is obvious to those in the room.

Your phone pings – it’s your favourite WhatsApp group. One of the other guests has already started drafting a “critical friend” paper in the corner of the room. They want to know if you want to be involved. “I’m in”, you respond, “This is important, we need to make sure NICE knows what we think”. Your phone pings again. Another guest is in: “I want to be involved, this matters. Also, this is exactly the kind of paper that will get picked up by the AHE blog. If we are lucky, we might even be the first paper in one of their journal round-ups”. You pause, think, and respond hopefully: “Fingers crossed”.

I don’t know if NICE had an actual birthday party – if they did I certainly wasn’t invited. I also highly doubt that the authors of this week’s first paper, or indeed any paper, had the AHE blog in mind when writing. What I do know, is that the first article is indeed a “critical friend” paper which outlines the authors’ concerns with NICE’s proposal to “revise” (read: delete) their social value judgements guidance. This paper is relatively short, so if you are interested in these changes I suggest you read it, rather than relying on my imaginary birthday party version of their concerns.

I am highly sympathetic to the views expressed in this paper. The existing “social value judgements” document is excellent, and (to me at least) seems to be the gold standard in setting the values by which an HTA body should develop guidance. Reducing this down to solely procedural elements seems unnecessary, and potentially harmful if the other core values are forgotten, or deprioritised.

As I reflect on this paper, I can’t help think of the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. NICE – this ain’t broke.

Measuring survival benefit in health technology assessment in the presence of nonproportional hazards. Value in Health Published 22nd March 2019

Dear HTA bodies that don’t routinely look for violations of proportional hazards in oncology data: 2005 called, they want their methods back.

Seriously though, it’s 2019. Things have moved on. If a new drug has a different mode of action to its comparator, is given for a different duration, or has differing levels of treatment effect in different population subgroups, there are good reasons to think that the trial data for that drug might violate proportional hazards. So why not look? It’s easy enough, and could change the way you think about both the costs and the benefits of that medicine.

If you haven’t worked in oncology before, there is a good chance you are currently asking yourself two questions: “what does proportional hazards mean?” and “why does it matter?”. In massively simplified terms, when we say the hazards in a trial are “proportional” we mean that the treatment effect of the new intervention (typically on survival) is constant over time. If a treatment takes some time to work (e.g. immunotherapies), or is given for only a few weeks before being stopped (e.g. some chemotherapies), there are good reasons to think that the treatment effect of that intervention may vary over time. If this is the case, there will be a violation of proportional hazards (they will be “nonproportional”).

If you are an HTA body, this is important for at least three reasons. First, if hazards are non-proportional, this can mean that the average hazard ratio (treatment effect) from the trial is a poor representation of what is likely to happen beyond the trial period – a big issue if you are extrapolating data in an economic model. Second, if hazards are non-proportional, this can mean that the median survival benefit from the trial is a poor representation of the mean benefit (e.g. in the case of a curve with a “big tail”). If you don’t account for this, and rely on medians (as some HTA bodies do), this can result in your evaluation under-estimating, or over-estimating, the true benefits and costs of the medicine. Third, most approaches to including indirect comparison in economic models rely on proportionality so, if this doesn’t hold, your model might be a poor representation of reality. Given these issues, it makes sense that HTA bodies should be looking for violations in proportional hazards when evaluating oncology data.

In this week’s second paper, the authors review the way different HTA bodies approach the issue of non-proportionality in their methods guides, and in a sample of their appraisals. Of the HTA bodies considered, they find that only NICE (UK), CADTH (Canada), and PBAC (Australia) recommend testing for proportional hazards. Notably, the authors report that the Transparency Committee (France), IQWiG (Germany), and TLV (Sweden) don’t recommend testing for proportionality. Interestingly, despite these recommendations, the authors find that solely the majority of NICE appraisals they reviewed included these tests, and that only 20% of the PBAC appraisals and 8% of the CADTH appraisals did. This suggests that the vast majority of oncology drug evaluations do not include consideration of non-proportionality – a big concern given the issues outlined above.

I liked this paper, although I was a bit shocked at the results. If you work for an HTA body that doesn’t recommend testing for non-proportionality, or doesn’t enforce their existing recommendations, I suggest you think very carefully about this issue – particularly if you rely on the extrapolation of survival curves in your assessments. If you aren’t looking for violations of proportional hazards, there is a good chance that you aren’t reflecting the true costs and benefits of many medicines in your evaluations. So, why not look for them?

The challenge of antimicrobial resistance: what economics can contribute. Science Published 5th April 2019

Health Economics doesn’t normally make it into Science (the journal). If it does, it probably means the paper is an important one. This one certainly is.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is scary – really scary. One source cited in this paper predicts that by 2050, 10 million people a year will die due to AMR. I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty worrying (how’s that for a bit of British understatement?). Given these predicted consequences, you would think that there would be quite a lot of work from economists on this issue. Well, there isn’t. According to this article, there are only 55 papers on EconLit that “broadly relate” to AMR.

This paper contributes to this literature in two important ways. First, it is a call to arms to economists to do more work on AMR. If there are only 55 papers on this topic, this suggests we are only scratching the surface of the issue and could do more as a field contribute to helping solve the problem. Second, it neatly demonstrates how economics could be applied to the problem of AMR – including analysis of both the supply side (not enough new antibiotics being developed) and demand side (too much antibiotic use) of the problem.

In the main body of the paper, the authors draw parallels between the economics of AMR and the economics of climate change: both are global instances of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, both are subject to significant uncertainty about the future, and both are highly sensitive to inter-temporal discounting. They then go on to suggest that many of the ideas developed in the context of climate change could be applied to AMR – including the potential for use of antibiotic prescribing quotas (analogous to carbon quotas) and taxation of antibiotic prescriptions (analogous to the idea of a carbon tax). There are many other ideas in the paper, and if you are interested in these I suggest you take the time to read it in full.

I think this is an important paper and one that has made me think more about the economics of both AMR and, inadvertently, climate change. With both issues, I can’t help but think we might be sleepwalking into a world where we have royally screwed over future generations because we didn’t take the actions we needed to take. If economists can help stop these things happening, we need to act. If we don’t, what will you say in 2050 when you turn on the news and see that 10 million people are dying from AMR each year? That is, assuming you aren’t one of those who has died as a result. Scary stuff indeed.

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