Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 17th 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.

Health related quality of life aspects not captured by EQ-5D-5L: results from an international survey of patients. Health Policy Published 14th December 2018

Generic preference-based measures, such as the EQ-5D, cannot capture all aspects of health-related quality of life. They’re not meant to. Rather, their purpose is to capture just enough information to be able to adequately distinguish between health states with respect to the domains deemed normatively relavent to decisionmakers. The stated aim of this paper is to determine whether people with a variety of chronic conditions believe that their experiences can be adequately represented by the EQ-5D-5L.

The authors conducted an online survey, identifying participants through 320 patient associations across 47 countries. Participants were asked to complete the EQ-5D-5L and then asked if any aspects of their illness, which had a “big impact” on their health, were not captured by the EQ-5D-5L. 1,031 people started the survey and 767 completed it. More than half were from the UK. 51% of respondents said that there was some aspect of health not captured by the EQ-5D-5L. Of them, 19% mentioned fatigue, 12% mentioned medication side effects, 9.5% mentioned co-morbid conditions, and then a bunch of others in smaller proportions.

It’s nice to know what people think, but I have a few concerns about the usefulness of this study. One of the main problems is that it doesn’t seem safe to assume that respondents interpret “big impact” as meaning “an impact that is independently important in determining your overall level of quality of life”. So, even if we accept that people judging something to be important makes it important (which I’m not sure it does), then we still can’t be sure whether what they are identifying is within the scope of what we’re trying to measure. For starters, I can see no justification for including a ‘medication side effects’ domain. There’s also some concern about selection and attrition. I’d guess that people with more complicated or less common health concerns would be more likely to start and finish a survey about more complicated or less common health concerns.

The main thing I took from this study is that half of respondents with chronic diseases thought that the EQ-5D-5L captured every single aspect of health that had a “big impact”, and that there wasn’t broad support for any other specific dimension.

Reducing drug wastage in pharmaceuticals dosed by weight or body surface areas by optimising vial sizes. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy [PubMed] Published 5th December 2018

It’s common for pharmaceuticals to be wasted. Not just those out-of-date painkillers you threw in the bin, but also the expensive stuff being used in hospitals. One of the main reasons that waste occurs is that vials are made to specific sizes and, often, dosage varies from patient to patient – according to weight, for example – and doesn’t match the vial size. Suppose that vials are available as 50mg and 80mg and that an individual requires a 60mg dose. One way to address this might be to allow for vial sharing, whereby the leftovers are given to the next patient. But that isn’t always possible. So, we might like to consider what the best combination of available vial sizes should be, given the characteristics of the population.

In this paper, the authors set out the problem mathematically. Essentially, the optimisation problem is to minimise cost across the population subject to the vial sizes. An example is presented for two drugs (pembrolizumab and cabazitaxel), simulating patients based on samples drawn from the Health Survey for England. Simplifications are applied to the examples, such as setting a constraint of 8 vials per patient and assuming that prices are linear (i.e. fixed per milligram).

Pembrolizumab is currently available in 50mg and 100mg vials, and the authors estimate current wastage to be 13.2%. The simulations show that switching the 50mg to a 70mg would cut wastage to 8.6%. Cabazitaxel is available in 60mg vials, resulting in 19.4% wastage. Introducing a 12.5mg vial would cut wastage by around two thirds. An important general finding, which should be self-evident, is that vial sizes should not be divisible by each other, as this limits the number of possible combinations.

Depending on when vial sizes are determined (e.g. pre- or post-authorisation), pharmaceutical companies might use it to increase profit margins, or health systems might use it to save costs. Regardless, wastage isn’t useful. Evidence-based manufacture is an example of one of those best ideas; the sort that is simple and seems obvious once it’s spelt out. It’s a rare opportunity to benefit patients, health care providers, and manufacturers, with no significant burden on policymakers.

Death or debt? National estimates of financial toxicity in persons with newly-diagnosed cancer. The American Journal of Medicine [PubMed] Published October 2018

If you’re British, what’s the scariest thing about an ‘Americanised’ (/Americanized) health care system? Expensive inhalers? A shortened life expectancy? My guess is that the prospect of having to add financial ruin to terminal illness looms pretty large. You should make sure your fear is evidence-based. Here’s a paper to shake in the face of anyone who doesn’t support universal health care.

The authors use data from the Health and Retirement Study from 1998-2014, which includes people over 50 years of age and includes new (self-reported) diagnoses of cancer. This was the basis for inclusion in the study, with over 9.5 million new diagnoses of cancer. Up to two years pre-diagnosis was taken as a baseline. The data set also includes information on participants’ assets and debts, allowing the authors to use change in net worth as the primary outcome. Generalised linear models were used to assess various indicators of financial toxicity, including change or incurrence of consumer debt, mortgage debt, and home equity debt at two- and four-year follow-up. In addition to cancer diagnosis, various chronic comorbidities and socio-demographic variables were included in the models.

Shockingly, after two years following diagnosis, 42.4% of people had depleted their entire life’s assets. Average net worth had dropped $92,000. After four years, 38.2% were still insolvent. Women, older people, people who weren’t White, people with Medicaid, and those with worsening cancer status were among those more likely to have completely depleted their assets within two years. Having private insurance and being married had protective effects, as we might expect. There were some interesting findings associated with the 2008 financial crisis, which also seemed to be protective. And a protective effect associated with psychiatric comorbidity deserves more thought.

It’s difficult to explain away any (let alone all) of the magnitude of these findings. The analysis seems robust. But, given all other evidence available about out-of-pocket costs for cancer patients in the US, it should be shocking but not unexpected. The authors describe financial toxicity as ‘unintended’. There’s nothing unintended about this. Policymakers in the US keep deciding that they’d prefer to destroy the lives of sick people than allow for the spreading of that financial risk.

Credits

Are user fees a barrier to health care in poor countries?

The 1987 Bamako declaration promoted user or consultation fees for health care as a means to raise revenue and improve the quality of services. However, user fees may pose a barrier to access, and hence the key Sustainable Development Goal of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), for the global poor who typically have a high elasticity of demand for health services. The evidence has been mixed though on the impact of adding or removing user fees. A Cochrane review found that utilisation of services typically declined significantly with the introduction of fees and that quality was often found to improve with fees, but they also questioned the reliability of these studies due to a “high risk of bias”. Indeed, the evidence can be conflicting as to the effect of user fees on health service utilisation. Consider the following two studies from two similar countries: Malawi and Zambia.

The first looks at the effect the introduction and removal user fees had on health centre outpatient attendances, new diagnoses of malaria, and HIV diagnoses in a rural district of Malawi (which I should declare I authored!) Of 13 centres in Neno district, four were operated by the Christian Health Association of Malawi, of which one has always charged user fees and three introduced them in July 2013. The other centres were operated by the Ministry for Health and an NGO, Partners In Health, and did not charge fees. In July 2015, one centre removed user fees. These changes in charging status created a neat natural experiment. A plot of outpatient attendances shows what happened:

Figure 3

Even without modelling it is clear what happened – attendances dropped with the introduction of user fees and increased when they were removed. Similar changes were seen in new malaria and HIV diagnoses Further analysis also suggested patients weren’t moving between centres to avoid fees.

The second study, published this week, looks at a 2006 policy to remove user fees for publicly-funded health care facilities in rural districts across Zambia. The policy was instigated by the Zambian president as a step towards UHC, but was implemented haphazardly with funding not being completely in place and districts choosing to distribute the funding they received in different ways. Using data from a repeated cross-sectional health survey, the corresponding plot of the effects of the policy is:

userfees

Evident from this and reinforced by their synthetic control analysis, the policy did little to change the proportion of people seeking health care. The key impact of the policy was to reduce out of pocket expenditure as it seems people switched from using private providers to public providers. So why do the results of these studies, with seemingly similar ‘treatments’ in similar poor rural populations, differ so much?

In an earlier study of the Zambian policy it was found that outpatient attendances recorded in routine data – the same data used in the Malawi study above – there were large increases in use of public facilities when user fees were removed. The new study adds evidence though that this increase was a result of people switching from private to public providers. In Neno district, Malawi there are no private providers – only those in the study. Nevertheless, private providers also charge, so health care use in the face of fees was markedly higher in Zambia than Neno, Malawi. Perhaps there are relevant differences then in the populations under study.

Zambia, even in 2006, was much wealthier than Malawi in 2013. GDP per capita in comparable dollars was $1,030 in 2006 Zambia and $333 in 2013 Malawi. And Neno district is among the poorest in Malawi. The Malawi study population may be significantly poorer then than that in Zambia, and so have yet more elastic demand. Then again, Zambia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, its wealth generated from a boom in the copper price and other commodities. Its Gini coefficient is 57.5 as compared to Malawi’s 43.9. Thus, one may expect rural Zambians to perhaps be comparable to those in Malawi despite GDP differences. Unfortunately, there aren’t further statistics in the paper to compare the samples – and indeed no information on the relative prices of the user fees. And further, the Zambia paper does look at the poorest 50% of people separately and finds little difference in the treatment effect although there does appear to be large levels of heterogeneity in the estimated treatment effects between districts.

Differences in conclusions may also results from differences in data. For example, the Zambia study looked at changes in the reported use of formal health care among people who had an illness recently, whereas the Malawian study looked at outpatient attendances and diagnoses. Perhaps a difference could arise here such as reporting biases in the survey data.

It is not clear why results in the Zambian study differ from those in the Malawian one and indeed many others. It certainly shows the difficulty we have understanding the effect even small charges can have on access to care even as the quality of the evidence improves.

Credits

Thesis Thursday: Estela Capelas Barbosa

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 Estela Capelas Barbosa who graduated with a PhD from the University of York. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Overall unfair inequality in health care: an application to Brazil
Supervisor
Richard Cookson
Repository link
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16649/

What’s the difference between fair and unfair inequality, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

Not all inequality is the same. Whilst most inequality in health and health care is unwanted, one could argue that some inequality is even desirable. For example, we all agree that women should receive more care than men because they have a higher need for health care. The same argument could be used for children. Therefore, when looking into inequality, from a philosophical point of view, it is important to distinguish between inequality that is deemed fair (as in my women’s example) and that considered unfair. But there is a catch! Because ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ are normative value judgements, different people may have different views as to what is fair or unfair. That’s why, in the thesis, I worked hard to come up with a framework that was flexible enough to allow for different views of fair and unfair.

Your thesis describes a novel way of thinking about inequality. What led you to believe that other conceptualisations were inadequate?

Previously, inequality in health care was either dealt with in overall terms, using a Gini coefficient type of analysis, or focused on income and socioeconomic inequality (see Wagstaff and Van Doorslaer, 2004). As a field researcher in Brazil, I had first-hand experience that there was more to unfair inequality than income. I remember personally meeting a very wealthy man that had many difficulties in accessing the healthcare system simply because he lived in a very remote rural area of the country. I wanted to better understand this and look beyond income to explain inequality in Brazil. Thus, neither of the well-established methods seemed really appropriate for my analysis. I knew I could adjust my Gini for need, but this type of analysis did not explicitly allow for a distinction between unfair and fair inequality. At the other extreme, income-related inequality was just a very narrow definition of unfairness. Although the established methods were my starting point, I agreed with Fleurbaey and Schokkaert that there could be yet another way of looking at inequality in health care, and I drew inspiration from their proposed method for health and made adjustments and modifications for the application to health care.

What were some of your key findings about the sources of inequality, and how were they measured in your data?

I guess my most important finding is that the sources of unfair inequality have changed between 1998 and 2013. For example, the contribution of income to unfair inequality decreased in this time for physician visits and mammography screening, yet for cervical screening it nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013. I have also found that there are other sources of inequality which are important (sometimes even more than income), as for example having private health insurance, education, living in urban areas and region.

As to my data, it came from Health Supplement of the Brazilian National Household Sample Survey for the years 1998, 2003 and 2008 and the first National Health Survey, conducted in 2013 (see www.ibge.gov.br). The surveys use standardised questionnaires and rely on self-report for most questions, particularly those related to health care coverage and health status.

Your analysis looks at a relatively long period of time. What can you tell us about long-term trends in Brazil?

It is difficult to talk about long-term trends in Brazil at the moment. Our (universal) healthcare system has only been in place since 1988 and, since the last wave of data (in 2013), there has been a strong political movement to dismantle the national system and sell it to the private sector. I guess the movement to reduce and/or privatise the NHS also exists here, but, unlike in the UK, our national system has always been massively under-resourced, so it is not as highly-regarded by the population.

Having said that, it is fair to say that in its first 25 years of existence, Brazil has accomplished a lot in terms of healthcare (I have described – in Portuguese – some of the achievements and challenges). The Brazilian National Health System covers over 200 million people and accounts for nearly 500 thousand hospital beds. In terms of inequality, over time, it has decreased for physician visits and cervical screening, though for mammography there is no clear trend.

What would you like to see policymakers in Brazil prioritise in respect to reducing inequality?

First and foremost, I would like policymakers to understand that over three-quarters of the Brazilian population relies on the national system as their one and only health care provider. Second, I would like to reinforce the idea that social inequality in health care in Brazil is not only and indeed not primarily related to income. In fact, other social variables such as education, region, urban or rural residency and health insurance status are as important or even more important than income. This implies that there are supply side actions that can be taken, which should be much easier to implement. For example, more health care equipment, such as MRIs and CT scanners could be purchased for the North and Northeast regions. This could potentially reduce unfair inequality. Policies can also be directed at improving access to care in rural regions, although this factor is not as important a contributor to inequality as it used to be. I guess the overall message is: there are several things that can be done to reduce unfair inequality in Brazil, but all depend on political will and understanding the importance of the healthcare system for the health of the population.