Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 18th November 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.

A conceptual map of health-related quality of life dimensions: key lessons for a new instrument. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published 1st November 2019

EQ-5D, SF-6D, HUI3, AQoL, 15D; they’re all used to describe health states for the purpose of estimating health state utility values, to get the ‘Q’ in the QALY. But it’s widely recognised (and evidenced) that they measure different things. This study sought to better understand the challenge by doing two things: i) ‘mapping’ the domains of the different instruments and ii) advising on the domains to be included in a new measure.

The conceptual model described in this paper builds on two standard models of health – the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health), which is endorsed by the WHO, and the Wilson and Cleary model. The new model is built around four distinctions, which can be used to define the dimensions included in health state utility instruments: cause vs effect, specific vs broad, physical vs psychological, and subjective vs objective. The idea is that each possible dimension of health can relate, with varying levels of precision, to one or the other of these alternatives.

The authors argue that, conveniently, cause/effect and specific/broad map to one another, as do physical/psychological and objective/subjective. The framework is presented visually, which makes it easy to interpret – I recommend you take a look. Each of the five instruments previously mentioned is mapped to the framework, with the HUI and 15D coming out as ‘symptom’ oriented, EQ-5D and SF-6D as ‘functioning’ oriented, and the AQoL as a hybrid of a health and well-being instrument. Based (it seems) on the Personal Wellbeing Index, the authors also include two social dimensions in the framework, which interact with the health domains. Based on the frequency with which dimensions are included in existing instruments, the authors recommend that a new measure should include three physical dimensions (mobility, self-care, pain), three mental health dimensions (depression, vitality, sleep), and two social domains (personal relationships, social isolation).

This framework makes no sense to me. The main problem is that none of the four distinctions hold water, let alone stand up to being mapped linearly to one another. Take pain as an example. It could be measured subjectively or objectively. It’s usually considered a physical matter, but psychological pain is no less meaningful. It may be a ‘causal’ symptom, but there is little doubt that it matters in and of itself as an ‘effect’. The authors themselves even offer up a series of examples of where the distinctions fall down.

It would be nice if this stuff could be drawn-up on a two-dimensional plane, but it isn’t that simple. In addition to oversimplifying complex ideas, I don’t think the authors have fully recognised the level of complexity. For instance, the work seems to be inspired – at least in part – by a desire to describe health state utility instruments in relation to subjective well-being (SWB). But the distinction between health state utility instruments and SWB isn’t simply a matter of scope. Health state utility instruments (as we use them) are about valuing states in relation to preferences, whereas SWB is about experienced utility. That’s a far more important and meaningful distinction than the distinction between symptoms and functioning.

Careless costs related to inefficient technology used within NHS England. Clinical Medicine Journal [PubMed] Published 8th November 2019

This little paper – barely even a single page – was doing the rounds on Twitter. The author was inspired by some frustration in his day job, waiting for the IT to work. We can all relate to that. This brief analysis sums the potential costs of what the author calls ‘careless costs’, which is vaguely defined as time spent by an NHS employee on activity that does not relate to patient care. Supposing that all doctors in the English NHS wasted an average of 10 minutes per day on such activities, it would cost over £143 million (per year, I assume) based on current salaries. The implication is that a little bit of investment could result in massive savings.

This really bugs me, for at least two reasons. First, it is normal for anybody in any profession to have a bit of downtime. Nobody operates at maximum productivity for every minute of every day. If the doctor didn’t have their downtime waiting for a PC to boot, it would be spent queuing in Costa, or having a nice relaxed wee. Probably both. Those 10 minutes that are displaced cannot be considered equivalent in value to 10 minutes of patient contact time. The second reason is that there is no intervention that can fix this problem at little or no cost. Investments cost money. And if perfect IT systems existed, we wouldn’t all find these ‘careless costs’ so familiar. No doubt, the NHS lags behind, but the potential savings of improvement may very well be closer to zero than to the estimates in this paper.

When it comes to clinical impacts, people insist on being able to identify causal improvements from clearly defined interventions or changes. But when it comes to costs, too many people are confident in throwing around huge numbers of speculative origin.

Socioeconomic disparities in unmet need for student mental health services in higher education. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 5th November 2019

In many countries, the size of the student population is growing, and this population seems to have a high level of need for mental health services. There are a variety of challenges in this context that make it an interesting subject for health economists to study (which is why I do), including the fact that universities are often the main providers of services. If universities are going to provide the right services and reach the right people, a better understanding of who needs what is required. This study contributes to this challenge.

The study is set in the context of higher education in Ireland. If you have no idea how higher education is organised in Ireland, and have an interest in mental health, then the Institutional Context section of this paper is worth reading in its own right. The study reports on findings from a national survey of students. This analysis is a secondary analysis of data collected for the primary purpose of eliciting students’ preferences for counselling services, which has been described elsewhere. In this paper, the authors report on supplementary questions, including measures of psychological distress and use of mental health services. Responses from 5,031 individuals, broadly representative of the population, were analysed.

Around 23% of respondents were classified as having unmet need for mental health services based on them reporting both a) severe distress and b) not using services. Arguably, it’s a sketchy definition of unmet need, but it seems reasonable for the purpose of this analysis. The authors regress this binary indicator of unmet need on a selection of sociodemographic and individual characteristics. The model is also run for the binary indicator of need only (rather than unmet need).

The main finding is that people from lower social classes are more likely to have unmet need, but that this is only because these people have a higher level of need. That is, people from less well-off backgrounds are more likely to have mental health problems but are no less likely to have their need met. So this is partly good news and partly bad news. It seems that there are no additional barriers to services in Ireland for students from a lower social class. But unmet need is still high and – with more inclusive university admissions – likely to grow. Based on the analyses, the authors recommend that universities could reach out to male students, who have greater unmet need.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 29th 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.

Here comes the SUN: self‐assessed unmet need, worsening health outcomes, and health care inequity. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 24th April 2019

How should we measure inequity in health care? Often, it is measured on the basis of health care use, and the extent to which people with different socioeconomic circumstances – conditional on their level of need – access services. One problem with this approach is that differences might not only reflect barriers to access but also heterogeneity in preferences. If people of lower socioeconomic status prefer to access services less (conditional on need), then this is arguably an artificial signal of inequities in the system. Instead, we could just ask people. But can self-assessed unmet need provide a valid and meaningful measure of inequity?

In this study, the researchers looked at whether self-reported unmet need can predict deterioration in health. The idea here is that we would expect there to be negative health consequences if people genuinely need health care but cannot access it. The Canadian National Population Health Survey asks whether, during the preceding 12 months, the individual needed health care but did not receive it, with around 10% reporting unmet need. General health outcomes are captured by self-assessed health and by the HUI3, and there are also variables for specific chronic conditions. A few model specifications, controlling for a variety of health-related and demographic variables, are implemented. For the continuous variables, the authors use a fixed effects model with lagged health, and for the categorical outcomes they used a random effects probit.

The findings are consistent across models and outcomes. People who report self-assessed unmet need are more likely to have poorer health outcomes in subsequent periods, in terms of both general health and the number of self-reported chronic conditions. This suggests that self-assessed unmet need is probably a meaningful indicator of barriers to access in health care. I’m not aware of any UK-based surveys that include self-assessed unmet need, but this study provides some reason to think that they should.

Cost effectiveness of treatments for diabetic retinopathy: a systematic literature review. PharmacoEconomics [PubMed] Published 22nd April 2019

I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 8 years doing research in the context of diabetic eye disease. Over that time, treatment has changed, and there have been some interesting controversies relating to the costs of new treatments. So this review is timely.

There are four groups of treatments that the authors consider – laser, anti-VEGF eye injections, corticosteroids, and surgery. The usual databases were searched, turning up 1915 abstracts, and 17 articles were included in the review. That’s not a lot of studies, which is why I’d like to call the authors out for excluding one HTA report, which I assume was Royle et al 2015 and which probably should have been included. The results are summarised according to whether the evaluations were of treatments for diabetic macular oedema (DMO) or proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR), which are the two main forms of sight-threatening diabetic eye disease. The majority of studies focussed on DMO. As ever, in reviews of this sort, the studies and their findings are difficult to compare. Different methods were employed, for different purposes. The reason that there are so few economic evaluations in the context of PDR is probably that treatments have been so decisively shown to be effective. Yet there is evidence to suggest that, for PDR, the additional benefits of injections do not justify the much higher cost compared with laser. However, this depends on the choice of drug that is being injected, because prices vary dramaticly. For DMO, injections are cost-effective whether combined with laser or not. The evidence on corticosteroids is mixed and limited, but there is promise in recently-developed fluocinolone implants.

Laser might still be king in PDR, and early surgical intervention is also still cost-effective where indicated. For DMO, the strongest evidence is in favour of using an injection (bevacizumab) that can only be used off-label. You can blame Novartis for that, or you can blame UK regulators. Either way, there’s good reason to be angry about it. The authors of this paper clearly have a good understanding of the available treatments, which is not always the case for reviews of economic evaluations. The main value of this study is as a reference point for people developing research in this area, to identify the remaining gaps in the evidence and appropriately align (or not) with prevailing methods.

Exploring the impacts of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act reforms to commissioning on clinical activity in the English NHS: a mixed methods study of cervical screening. BMJ Open [PubMed] Published 14th April 2019

Not everybody loves the Health and Social Care Act of 2012. But both praise and criticism of far-reaching policies like this are usually confined to political arguments. It’s nice to see – and not too long after the fact – some evidence of its impact. In this paper, we learn about the impact of the Act on cervical screening activity.

The researchers used both qualitative and quantitative methods in their study in an attempt to identify whether the introduction of the Act influenced rates of screening coverage. With the arrival of the Act, responsibility for commissioning screening services shifted from primary care trusts to regional NHS England teams, while sexual health services were picked up by local authorities. The researchers conducted 143 (!) interviews with commissioners, clinicians, managers, and administrators from various organisations. Of these, 93 related to the commissioning of sexual health services, with questions regarding the commissioning system before and after the introduction of the Act. How did participants characterise the impact of the Act? Confusion, complexity, variability, uncertainty, and the idea that these characteristics could result in a drop in screening rates.

The quantitative research plan, and in particular the focus on cervical screening, arose from the qualitative findings. The quantitative analysis sought to validate the qualitative findings. But everyone had the Act dropped on them at the same time (those wily politicians know how to evade blame), so the challenge for the researchers was to identify some source of variation that could represent exposure to the effects of the Act. Informed by the interviewees, the authors differentiated between areas based on the number of local authorities that the clinical commissioning group (CCG) had to work with. Boundaries don’t align, so while some CCGs only have to engage with one local authority, some have to do so with as many as three, increasing the complexity created by the Act. As a kind of control, the researchers looked at the rate of unassisted births, which we wouldn’t expect to have been affected by the introduction of the Act. From this, they estimated the triple difference in cervical screening rates before and after the introduction of the Act, between CCGs with one or more than one local authority, minus the difference in the unassisted birth rate. Screening rates (and unassisted delivery rates) were both declining before the introduction of the Act. Without any adjustment, screening rates before and after the introduction of the act decreased by 0.39% more for GP practices in those CCGs that had to work with multiple local authorities. Conversely, unassisted delivery rates actually increased by a similar amount. The adjusted impact of the Act on screening rates was a drop of around 0.62%.

Clearly, there are big disclaimers attached to findings from a study of this sort, though the main finding seems to be robust to a variety of specifications. Any number of other things could explain the change in screening rates over the period, which the researchers couldn’t capture. But the quantitative findings are backed-up by the qualitative reports, making this a far more convincing piece of work. There’s little doubt that NHS redisorganisations of this kind create challenges in the short term, and we can now see the impact that this has on the provision of care.

Public involvement in health outcomes research: lessons learnt from the development of the recovering quality of life (ReQoL) measures. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes [PubMed] Published 11th April 2019

We’ve featured a few papers from the ReQoL project on this blog. The researchers developed several outcome measures to be used in the context of mental health. A couple of weeks ago, we also featured a paper turning a sceptical eye to the idea of co-production, whereby service users or members of the public are not simply research participants but research partners. This paper describes the experience of coproduction in the context of the ReQoL study. The authors are decidedly positive about co-production.

The logic behind the involvement of service users in the development of patient-reported outcome measures is obvious; measures need to be meaningful and understandable to patients, and enabling service users to inform research decisions could facilitate that. But there is little guidance on co-production in the context of developing patient-reported outcomes. Key decisions in the development of ReQoL were made by a ‘scientific group’, which included academics, clinicians, and seven expert service users. An overlapping ‘expert service user group’ also supported the study. In these roles, service users contributed to all stages of the research, confirming themes and items, supporting recruitment, collecting and analysing data, agreeing the final items for the measures, and engaging in dissemination activities. It seems that the involvement was in large part attendance at meetings, discussing data and findings to achieve an interpretation that includes the perspectives of services users. This resulted in decisions – about which items to take forward – that probably would not have been made if the academics and clinicians were left to their own devices. Service users were also involved in the development of research materials, such as the interview topic guide. In some examples, however, it seems like the line between research partner and research participant was blurred. If an expert service user group is voting on candidate items and editing them according to their experience, this is surely a data collection process and the services users become research subjects.

The authors describe the benefits as they saw them, in terms of the expert service users’ positive influence on the research. The costs and challenges are also outlined, including the need to manage disagreements and make additional preparations for meetings. We’re even provided with the resource implications in terms of the additional days of work. The comprehensive description of the researchers’ experiences in this context and the recommendations that they provide make this paper an important companion for anybody designing a research study to develop a new patient-reported outcome measure.

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Alastair Canaway’s journal round-up for 28th May 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.

Information, education, and health behaviours: evidence from the MMR vaccine autism controversy. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 2nd May 2018

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published (in the Lancet) his infamous and later retracted research purportedly linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Despite the thorough debunking and exposure of academic skulduggery, a noxious cloud of misinformation remained in the public mind, particularly in the US. This study examined several facets of the MMR fake news including: what impact did this have on vaccine uptake in the US (both MMR and other vaccines); how did state level variation in media coverage impact uptake; and what role did education play in subsequent decisions about whether to vaccinate or not. This study harnessed the National Immunization Survey from 1995 to 2006 to answer these questions. This is a yearly dataset of over 200,000 children aged between 19 to 35 months with detailed information on not just immunisation, but also maternal education, income and other sociodemographics. The NewsLibrary database was used to identify stories published in national and state media relating to vaccines and autism. Various regression methods were implemented to examine these data. The paper found that, unsurprisingly, for the year following the Wakefield publication the MMR vaccine take-up declined by between 1.1%-1.5% (notably less than 3% in the UK), likewise this fall in take-up spilled over into other vaccines take-up. The most interesting finding related to education: MMR take-up for children of college-educated mothers declined significantly compared to those without a degree. This can be explained by the education gradient where more-educated individuals absorb and respond to health information more quickly. However, in the US, this continued for many years beyond 2003 despite proliferation of research refuting the autism-MMR link. This contrasts to the UK where educational link closed soon after the findings were refuted, that is, in the UK, the educated responded to the new information refuting the MMR-Autism link. In the US, despite the research being debunked, MMR uptake was lower in the children of those with higher levels of education for many more years. The author speculates that this contrast to the UK may be a result of the media influencing parents’ decisions. Whilst the media buzz in the UK peaked in 2002, it had largely subsided by 2003. In the US however, the media attention was constant, if not increasing till 2006, and so this may have been the reason the link remained within the US. So, we have Andrew Wakefield and arguably fearmongering media to blame for causing a long-term reduction in MMR take-up in the US. Overall, an interesting study leaning on multiple datasets that could be of interest for those working with big data.

Can social care needs and well-being be explained by the EQ-5D? Analysis of the Health Survey for England. Value in Health Published 23rd May 2018

There is increasing discussion about integrating health and social care to provide a more integrated approach to fulfilling health and social care needs. This creates challenges for health economists and decision makers when allocating resources, particularly when comparing benefits from different sectors. NICE itself recognises that the EQ-5D may be inappropriate in some situations. With the likes of ASCOT, ICECAP and WEMWBS frequenting the health economics world this isn’t an unknown issue. To better understand the relationship between health and social care measures, this EuroQol Foundation funded study examined the relationship between social care needs as measured by the Barthel Index, well-being measured using WEMWBS and also the GGH-12, and the EQ-5D as the measure of health. Data was obtained through the Health Survey for England (HSE) and contained 3354 individuals aged over 65 years. Unsurprisingly the authors found that higher health and wellbeing scores were associated with an increased probability of no social care needs. Those who are healthier or at higher levels of wellbeing are less likely to need social care. Of all the instruments, it was the self-care and the pain/discomfort dimensions of the EQ-5D that were most strongly associated with the need for social care. No GHQ-12 dimensions were statistically significant, and for the WEMWBS only the ‘been feeling useful’ and ‘had energy to spare’ were statistically significantly associated with social care need. The authors also investigated various other associations between the measures with many unsurprising findings e.g. EQ-5D anxiety/depression dimension was negatively associated with wellbeing as measured using the GHQ-12. Although the findings are favourable for the EQ-5D in terms of it capturing to some extent social care needs, there is clearly still a gap whereby some outcomes are not necessarily captured. Considering this, the authors suggest that it might be appropriate to strap on an extra dimension to the EQ-5D (known as a ‘bolt on’) to better capture important ‘other’ dimensions, for example, to capture dignity or any other important social care outcomes. Of course, a significant limitation with this paper relates to the measures available in the data. Measures such as ASCOT and ICECAP have been developed and operationalised for economic evaluation with social care in mind, and a comparison against these would have been more informative.

The health benefits of a targeted cash transfer: the UK Winter Fuel Payment. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published 9th May 2018

In the UK, each winter is accompanied by an increase in mortality, often known as ‘excess winter mortality’ (EWM). To combat this, the UK introduced the Winter Fuel Payment (WFP), the purpose of the WFP is an unconditional cash transfer to households containing an older person (those most vulnerable to EWM) above the female state pension age with the intent for this to used to help the elderly deal with the cost of keeping their dwelling warm. The purpose of this paper was to examine whether the WFP policy has improved the health of elderly people. The authors use the Health Surveys for England (HSE), the Scottish health Survey (SHeS) and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and employ a regression discontinuity design to estimate causal effects of the WFP. To measure impact (benefit) they focus on circulatory and respiratory illness as measured by: self-reports of chest infection, nurse measured hypertension, and two blood biomarkers for infection and inflammation. The authors found that for those living in a household receiving the payment there was a 6% point reduction (p<0.01) in the incidence of high levels of serum fibrinogen (biomarker) which are considered to be a marker of current infection and are associated with chronic pulmonary disease. For the other health outcomes, although positive, the estimated effects were less robust and not statistically significant. The authors investigated the impact of increasing the age of eligibility for the WFP (in line with the increase of women’s pension age). Their findings suggest there may be some health cost associated with the increase in age of eligibility for WFP. To surmise, the paper highlights that there may be some health benefits from the receipt of the WFP. What it doesn’t however consider is opportunity cost. With WFP costing about £2 billion per year, as a health economist, I can’t help but wonder if the money could have been better spent through other avenues.

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