Alastair Canaway’s journal round-up for 27th November 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.

Elevated mortality among weekend hospital admissions is not associated with adoption of seven day clinical standards. Emergency Medicine Journal [PubMedPublished 8th November 2017

Our esteemed colleagues in Manchester brought more evidence to the seven-day NHS debate (debacle?). Patients who are admitted to hospital in an emergency at weekends have higher mortality rates than those during the week. Despite what our Secretary of State will have you believe, there is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that once case-mix is adequately adjusted for, the ‘weekend effect’ becomes negligible. This paper takes a slightly different angle for examining the same phenomenon. It harnesses the introduction of four priority clinical standards in England, which aim to reduce the number of deaths associated with the weekend effect. These are time to first consultant review; access to diagnostics; access to consultant-directed interventions; and on-going consultant review. The study uses publicly available data on the performance of NHS Trusts in relation to these four priority clinical standards. For the latest financial year (2015/16), Trusts’ weekend effect odds ratios were compared to their achievement against the four clinical standards. Data were available for 123 Trusts. The authors found that adoption of the four clinical standards was not associated with the extent to which mortality was elevated for patients admitted at the weekend. Furthermore, they found no association between the Trusts’ performance against any of the four standards and the magnitude of the weekend effect. The authors offer three reasons as to why this may be the case. First, data quality could be poor, second, it could be that the standards themselves are inadequate for reducing mortality, finally, it could be that the weekend effect in terms of mortality may be the wrong metric by which to judge the benefits of a seven-day service. They note that their previous research demonstrated that the weekend effect is driven by admission volumes at the weekend rather than the number of deaths, so it will not be impacted by care provision, and this is consistent with the findings in this study. The spectre of opportunity cost looms over the implementation of these standards; although no direct harm may arise from the introduction of these standards, resources will be diverted away from potentially more beneficial alternatives, this is a serious concern. The seven-day debate continues.

The effect of level overlap and color coding on attribute non-attendance in discrete choice experiments. Value in Health Published 16th November 2017

I think discrete choice experiments (DCE) are difficult to complete. That may be due to me not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, or it could be due to the nature of DCEs, or a bit of both. For this reason, I like best-worst scaling (BWS). BWS aside, DCEs are a common tool used in health economics research to assess and understand preferences. Given the difficulty of DCEs, people often resort to heuristics, that is, respondents often simplify choice tasks by taking shortcuts, e.g. ignoring one or more attribute (attribute non-attendance) or always selecting the option with the highest level of a certain attribute. This has downstream consequences leading to bias within preference estimates. Furthermore, difficulty with comprehension leads to high attrition rates. This RCT sought to examine whether participant dropout and attribute non-attendance could be reduced through two methods: level overlap, and colour coding. Level overlap refers to the DCE design whereby in each choice task a certain number of attributes are presented with the same level; in different choice tasks different attributes are overlapped. The idea of this is to prevent dominant attribute strategies whereby participants always choose the option with the highest level of one specific attribute and forces them to evaluate all attributes. The second method involves colour coding and the provision of other visual cues to reduce task complexity, e.g. colour coding levels to make it easy to see which levels are equal. There were five trial arms. The control arm featured no colour coding and no attribute overlap. The other four arms featured either colour coding (two different types were tested), attribute overlap, or a combination of them both. A nationally (Dutch) representative sample in relation to age, gender, education and geographic region were recruited online. In total 3394 respondents were recruited and each arm contained over 500 respondents. Familiarisation and warm-up questions were followed by 21 pairwise choice tasks in a randomised order. For the control arm (no overlap, no colour coding) 13.9% dropped out whilst only attending to on average 2.1 out of the five attributes. Colour coding reduced this to 9.6% with 2.8 attributes being attended. Combining level overlap with intensity colour coding reduced drop out further to 7.2% whilst increasing attribute attendance to four out of five. Thus, the combination of level overlap and colour coding nearly halved the dropout and doubled the attribute attendance within the DCE task. An additional, and perhaps most important benefit of the improvement in attribute attendance is that it reduces the need to model for potential attribute non-attendance post-hoc. Given the difficult of DCE completion, it seems colour coding in combination with level overlap should be implored for future DCE tasks.

Evidence on the longitudinal construct validity of major generic and utility measures of health-related quality of life in teens with depression. Quality of Life Research [PubMed] Published 17th November 2017

There appears to be increasing recognition of the prevalence and seriousness of youth mental health problems. Nearly 20% of young people will suffer depression during their adolescent years. To facilitate cost-utility analysis it is necessary to have a measure of preference based health-related quality of life (HRQL). However, there are few measures designed for use in adolescents. This study sought to examine various existing HRQL measures in relation to their responsiveness for the evaluation of interventions targeting depression in young people. This builds on previous work conducted by Brazier et al that found the EQ-5D and SF-6D performed adequately for depression in adults. In total 392 adolescents aged between 13 and 17 years joined the study, 376 of these completed follow up assessments. Assessments were taken at baseline and 12 weeks. The justification for 12 weeks is that it represented the modal time to clinical change. The following utility instruments were included: the HUI suite, the EQ-5D-3L, Quality of Well-Being Scale (QWB), and the SF-6D (derived from SF-36). Other non-preference based HRQL measures were also included: disease-specific ratings and scales, and the PedsQL 4.0. All (yes, you read that correctly) measures were found to be responsive to change in depression symptomology over the 12-week follow up period and each of the multi-attribute utility instruments was able to detect clinically meaningful change. In terms of comparing the utility instruments, the HUI-3, the QWB and the SF-6D were the most responsive whilst the EQ-5D-3L was the least responsive. In summary, any of the utility instruments could be used. One area of disappointment for me was that the CHU-9D was not included within this study – it’s one of the few instruments that has been developed by and for children and would have very much been a worthy addition. Regardless, this is an informative study for those of us working within the youth mental health sphere.

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Journal Club Briefing: Dolan and Kahneman (2008)

Today’s Journal Club Briefing comes from the Academic Unit of Health Economics at the University of Leeds. At their journal club on 2nd August 2017, they discussed Dolan and Kahneman’s 2008 article from The Economic Journal: ‘Interpretations of utility and their implications for the valuation of health‘. If you’ve discussed an article at a recent journal club meeting at your own institution and would like to write a briefing for the blog, get in touch.

Why this paper?

Dolan and Kahneman (2008) is a paper which was published nearly ten years ago, was written several years before that, and was not published in a health-related journal. It’s hence, at first sight, a slightly curious choice for a health economics journal club. However, it raises issues which are at the heart of health economics practice. The questions raised by this article have not as yet been answered, and don’t look likely to be answered anytime soon.

Summary

Experienced vs. decision utility

The article’s point of departure is the distinction between experienced utility and decision utility, often a source of fruitful research in behavioural economics. Experienced utility is utility in the Benthamite sense, meaning the hedonic experience in the current moment: the pleasure and/or pain felt by a person at any given point in time. Decision utility is utility as taught in undergraduate economics textbooks: an objective function which the individual dispassionately acts to maximise. In the neoclassical framework of said undergraduate textbooks, this is a distinction without a difference. The individual correctly forecasts the expected flow of experienced utility given the available information and her actions, forms a decision utility function from it and acts to maximise it.

However, Thaler and Sunstein wouldn’t have sold as many books if things were so simple. Many systematic and significant instances of divergences between experienced and decision utility have been well documented, and several people (including one of the authors of this paper) have won Nobel prizes for it. The one which this article focuses on is adaptation.

Adaptation

The authors summarise a large body of evidence that shows that individuals suffer a large loss of utility after a traumatic event (e.g. the loss of a limb or loss of function), but that for many conditions they will adapt to their new situation and recover much of their utility loss. After as little as a year, their valuation of their health is very similar to that of the general population. Furthermore, the authors precis various studies which show that individuals routinely underestimate drastically the amount of adaptation that would occur should such a traumatic event befall them.

This improvement over time in the health-related utility experienced by people with many conditions is partly due to hedonic adaptation – the internal scale of pleasure/pain re-calibrates to their new situation – and partly due to behavioural change, such as finding new pastimes to replace those ruled out by their condition. While the causes of adaptation are fascinating, the focus here is not on the mechanisms behind it, but rather on the consequences for measuring utility and the implications for resource allocation.

Health valuation and adaptation

The methods health economists use to evaluate the utility of being in a given health state, such as time trade-off, standard gamble or discrete choice experiments, will tend to elicit decision utility. They are based on choices between hypothetical states and so will not capture the changes in experienced utility due to adaptation. Thus valuations of health states from the general public will tend to be lower than the valuations from people actually living in the health state.

At first glance, the consequences for resource allocation may not appear to be particularly severe. It may lead to more resources being devoted to healthcare as a whole (at least for life-improving treatments – life-extending treatments are a different case), but the overall healthcare budget is in practice largely a political decision. However, it will not lead to distortions between treatments for alternative conditions.

Yet adaptation is not a universal phenomenon. There are conditions for which little or no adaptation is seen (for example unexplained pain), and when it occurs, it occurs at different speeds and to differing extents for different conditions. The authors show that valuations of conditions with a greater initial utility loss are lower than conditions with a lesser initial loss but a lower degree of adaptation, and thus will receive a greater level of resources, despite the sum of experienced utility being the same for both. The authors argue that this is unfair, and that health economists should update their practices to better capture experienced utility.

Public vs. patient preference

A common argument in favour of the status quo is that (in many countries at least) it is public resources which are being allocated, and thus it is public preferences which should be respected. It appears legitimate to allocate resources to assuage public fears of health states, even if those health states are worse in their imagination than in reality. The authors consider this argument and reply that, in this case, the instruments of health economists are still not fit for purpose. General measures of health states, such as EQ-5D, go out of their way to describe states in abstract terms and to separate them from causes, such as cancer, which may carry an emotional affect. It cannot be argued that public valuations are justified because resources should be allocated according to public fears if the measurement of valuation deliberately tries not to elicit those fears.

The argument that adaptation causes serious problems for valuing health and for allocation of health resources is a persuasive one. It is undoubtedly true that changes in utility over time, and other violations of the neoclassical economic paradigm such as reference dependence, do not presently receive sufficient attention in health economics and policy decisions in general.

Discussion

Which yardstick?

Despite the stimulating discussion and the overall brilliance of the paper, there are some elements which can be challenged. One of them is that throughout, the authors’ arguments and recommendations are made from the standpoint that the sum over time of the flow of experienced utility from a health state is to be used as the sole measure of value. This would consist in what one of the authors calls the day reconstruction method (DRM) which consists in rating a range of feelings including happiness, worry, and frustration.

Despite the acknowledgement of some philosophical difficulties, the sum of the flow of experienced utility is treated as if it is the only true yardstick with which to measure health, without a convincing justification and no discussion on the qualitative aspect of the measurement as opposed to a truly cardinal measure of health allowing ranking of individuals’ health states.

Public vs. private preferences revisited

The authors raise the question of whether current practice can be justified by a desire to soothe public fears, and dismiss it since the elicitation tools are not suitable. However, they do not address the question of whether allocating public resources according to the public’s (incorrect) fears of given diseases or health states could be a legitimate health policy aim. One could imagine, for example, a discrete choice experiment eliciting how much the general public dreads cancer over other diseases, and make an argument that the welfare of the public is improved by allocating resources based on these results. There are myriad problems with such an approach, of course, but there seem to be no fewer problems with alternative approaches.

Intertemporal welfare

Intertemporal welfare judgements are notoriously difficult once the exponential discounting framework is left. It seems just as legitimate to base valuations on the ex post judgement of individuals who have fully adjusted to a health state as on an integration of past feelings, most of which are now distant memories. Most people would agree that the time to value their experience of a marathon is after completing it, not during the twenty-fifth mile or at the start line.

Indeed, this appears to be the position tacitly taken elsewhere by Kahneman in his work on the peak-end rule. In Redelmeier et al. (2003), it was found that the retrospective rating of the pain of a colonoscopy was based almost exclusively on the peak intensity of pain and on the pain felt at the end. Thus procedures which were extended by an extra three minutes were remembered as less painful than standard procedures, even though the total pain experienced was greater. Furthermore, those who underwent the extended procedure were more likely to state they would undergo it again. It would seem strange, in this case, to judge them as worse off.

Schelling (1984) ends his superlative discussion of the problems of intertemporal decision making with the following thought experiment. Just as with valuing health, there are no easy answers.

[S]ome anesthetics block transmission of the nervous impulses that constitute pain; others have the characteristic that the patient responds to the pain as if feeling it fully but has utterly no recollection afterwards. One of these is sodium pentothal. In my imaginary experiment we wish to distinguish the effects of the drug from the effects of the unremembered pain, and we want a healthy control subject in parallel with some painful operations that will be performed with the help of this drug. For a handsome fee you will be knocked out for an hour or two, allowed to sleep it off, then tested before you go home. You do this regularly, and one afternoon you walk into the lab a little early and find the experimenters viewing some videotape. On the screen is an experimental subject writhing, and though the audio is turned down the shrieks are unmistakably those of a person in pain. When the pain stops the victim pleads, “Don’t ever do that again. Please.”

The person is you.

Do you care?

Do you walk into your booth, lie on the couch, and hold out your arm for today’s injection?

Should I let you?

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Meeting round-up: EuroQol Plenary Meeting 2017

The 34th Plenary Meeting of the EuroQol Group took place in Barcelona on 21st and 22nd September 2017. The local hosts of the meeting were Mike Herdman (UK-born but a Barcelona resident for many years), Juan Manuel Ramos-Goñi and Oliver Rivero-Arias. For the second year running, I chaired the Scientific Programme together with Anna Lugnér.

At its inception, the EuroQol Group was very much a northern European collaboration – the early versions of the EuroQol instrument (now known as the EQ-5D) were developed by researchers in the Netherlands, UK, Sweden, Finland and Norway – see here for an overview of the Group and its history. This year’s Plenary Meeting was attended by 111 participants (primarily academic researchers) representing 23 different countries spanning six continents.

As with previous Plenary Meetings, an HESG-style discussant format was followed – papers were pre-circulated to participants and presented by discussants rather than by authors. The parallel poster sessions also followed a discussant format, with approximately 10 minutes dedicated to the discussion of each poster. In total, 19 papers and 20 posters were presented. For the first time, the majority of the papers were lead-authored by women.

One of the themes of the meeting was a focus on the relationships and interactions between EQ-5D dimensions. A paper by Anna Selivanova compared health state values derived from discrete choice data both with and without interactions. Anna reported results demonstrating that interactions are important and that the interaction between mobility and self-care was the most salient. Another paper by Thor Gamst-Klaussen (represented at the meeting by co-author Jan Abel Olsen) explored the causal and effect nature of EQ-5D dimensions. The authors applied confirmatory tetrad analysis and confirmatory factor analysis to multi-country, cross-sectional data in order to test a conceptual framework depicting relationships among the five dimensions. The results suggest that the EQ-5D comprises both causal variables – mobility, pain/discomfort and anxiety/depression – and effect variables – self-care and usual activities.

An intriguing paper by John Hartman tested for differences in respondent characteristics, participation, response quality and EQ-5D-5L values depending on the device and connection used to access an online survey. The results showed systematic variability in participation and response quality, but the variability did not affect the resulting health state values. The findings could support extending the administration of valuation surveys to smaller devices (e.g. mobile phones) to obtain responses from younger, more ethnically diverse populations who have traditionally been found to be difficult to recruit.

Other topics covered in the programme included the views of UK decision makers on the role of well-being in resource allocation decisions, the development of a value set for the EQ-5D-Y (a version of the EQ-5D designed for use in children and adolescents), and the prevalence and impact of so-called ‘implausible’ health states.

The Plenary Meeting concluded with a guest presentation by Janel Hanmer of the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a reception at a restaurant on the Montjuïc hill overlooking the Barcelona harbour. The next EuroQol conference will be the Academy Meeting, which takes place in Budapest on 6-8 March 2018.

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