Harold Hastings’s journal round-up for 16th July 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.

Legal origins and female HIV. American Economic Review [RePEc] Published 13th June 2018

I made this somewhat unusual choice because the author Siwan Anderson draws an important connection between the economic and legal status of women across sub-Saharan Africa and the incidence of HIV. As summarized in the American Economic Review feature Empowering women, improving health, “Over half of all people living with HIV are women. Of all HIV-positive women, 80 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Anderson hypothesizes that regional differences in female property rights (lower in common law eastern and southern Africa than in civil law central Africa) may explain significantly higher HIV incidence in eastern and southern African women, especially relative to eastern and southern African men. Health economists have long studied how economic status affects access to health care; Anderson presents an important and interesting complementary argument for how economic (and legal) status affects health. In particular, improved legal status and access to legal aid may be a key step in improving women’s health.

Addressing generic-drug market failures — the case for establishing a nonprofit manufacturer. The New England Journal of Medicine [PubMed] Published 17th May 2018

We have recently seen shortages in many generic drugs, including generic injectables used in emergency, trauma and other hospital medicine. In many cases, there is only a single supplier, who can dramatically increase prices. One might expect others to enter the market in this case. However, frequently significant fixed start-up costs pose a barrier to entry and the single supplier, who has already made and in many cases paid for the start-up investment, can drastically reduce prices to make it difficult for the competition to cover these costs. Thus there is little incentive to enter a potentially low-profit market. The authors propose establishing a nonprofit manufacturer, essentially a pharmaceutical counterpart to a variety of national and nonprofit health systems, as a novel and a potentially successful way to address this issue.

An incomplete prescription: President Trump’s plan to address high drug prices. JAMA [PubMed] Published 19th June 2018

The prices of many drugs are significantly higher in the United States than in much of the rest of the developed world. President Trump proposes some market actions such as granting Medicare negotiating power; but the authors find these insufficient, making two interesting additional proposals. First, since much pharmaceutical development derives from NIH funded research (including chimeric antigen receptor T-cell immunotherapies which may cost $400,000 US per dose), the authors argue that the NIH and academic institutions could require US prices based upon independent valuations or not to exceed those in other industrialized countries. The authors also suggest authorizing imports where there is adequate regulation as a further mechanism for controlling drug prices; in my opinion a natural free-trade position. The pricing of pharmaceuticals remains complex and perhaps new economic models are needed to address the risk and cost of pharmaceutical development. Kenneth Arrow’s critiques of the limitations of economics to address health issues might provide interesting insights.

Cost-related insulin underuse is common and associated with poor glycemic control. Diabetes Published July 2018

I would like to conclude by citing a recent abstract providing a human side to the growing cost of pharmaceuticals. Darby Herkert (a Yale undergraduate) reported that a quarter of almost 200 patient responses to a survey of patients at a New Haven, CT, USA diabetes center reported cost-related insulin underuse. Underuse was prevalent among patients with lower income levels, patients without full-time employment, and patients without employer-provided insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Patients reporting underuse had three times the incidence of of HbA1c >9%. These results cite the human costs of high insulin prices in the US. A Medscape review cites the high cost of typically prescribed insulin analogs, and quotes the lead author calling these prices irrational and describing patients living near the Mexican border crossing the border to buy their insulin.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 25th July 2016

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 income-health relationship ‘beyond the mean’: new evidence from biomarkers. Health Economics [PubMed] Published 15th July 2016

Going ‘beyond the mean’ is becoming a big deal in health economics, as we get better data and develop new tools for analysis. In economic evaluation we’re finding our feet in the age of personalised medicine. As this new study shows, analogous changes are taking place in the econometrics literature. We all know that income correlates with measures of health, but we know a lot less about the nature of this correlation. If we want to target policy in the most cost-effective way, simply asserting that higher income (on average) improves health is not that useful. This study uses a new econometric technique known as the recentered influence function (RIF) to look at the income-health relationship ‘beyond the mean’. It considers blood-based biomarkers with known disease associations as indicators of health, specifically: cholesterol, HbA1c, Fibrinogen and Ferritin. Even for someone with limited willingness to engage with econometrics (e.g. me) the methods are surprisingly elegant and intuitive. In short, the analysis divides people (in terms of each biomarker) into quantiles. So, for example, we can look at the people with high HbA1c (related to diabetes) and see if the relationship with income is different to that for people with a low HbA1c. The study finds that the income-health relationship is non-linear across the health distribution, thus proving the merit of the RIF approach. Generally, the income gradients were higher at the top quintiles. This suggests that income may be more important in tipping a person over the edge – in terms of clinical cut-offs – than in affecting the health of people who are closer to the average. The analysis for cholesterol showed that looking only at the mean (i.e. income increases cholesterol) might hide a positive relationship for most of the distribution but a negative relationship at the top end. This could translate into very different policy implications. The study carried out further decomposition analyses to look at gender differences, which support further differentiation in policy. This kind of analysis will become increasingly important in policy development and evaluation. We might start to see public interventions being exposed as useless for most people, and perhaps actively harmful for some, even if they look good on average.

Using patient-reported outcomes for economic evaluation: getting the timing right. Value in Health Published 15th July 2016

The estimation of QALYs involves an ‘area under the curve’ approach to outcome measurement. How accurately the estimate represents the ‘true’ number of QALYs (if there is such a thing) depends both on where the dots (i.e. data collection points) are and how we connect them. This study looks at the importance of these methodological decisions. Most of us (I think) would use linear interpolation between time points, but the authors also consider an alternative assumption that the health state utility value applies to the whole of the preceding period. The study looks at data for total knee arthroplasty with SF-12 data at 6 weeks, 3 and 6 months and then annually up to 5 years after the operation. The authors evaluated the use of alternative single postoperative SF-6D scores compared with using all of the data, and both linear and immediate interpolation. This gave 12 alternative scenarios. Collecting only at 3 months and using linear interpolation gave a surprisingly similar profile to the ‘true’ number of QALYs, at only about 5% too high. Collecting only at 6 weeks would underestimate QALY gain by 41%, while 6 months and 12 months would be 18% too high and 8% too low, respectively. It’s easy to see that the more data you can collect, the more accurate will be your results. This study shows how important it can be to collect health state data at the most appropriate time. 3 months seems to be the figure for total knee arthroplasty, but it will likely differ for other interventions.

Should the NHS abolish the purchaser-provider split? BMJ [PubMed] Published 12th July 2016

The NHS in England (notably not Scotland or Wales) operates with what’s known as the ‘internal market’, which separates the NHS’s functions as purchasers of health care and as providers of health care. In this BMJ ‘Head to Head’, Alan Maynard argues that it ought to be abolished, while Michael Dixon (a GP) defends its maintenance. Maynard argues that the internal market has been an expensive experiment, and that the results of the experiment have not been well-recorded. The Care Quality Commission and Monitor – organisations supporting the internal market – cost around £300 million to run in 2014/15. Dixon argues that the purchaser-provider split offered “refreshingly new accountability” to local commissioners with front-line experience rather than to the Department of Health. Though Dixon seems to be defending an idealised version of commissioning, rather than what is actually observed in practice. Neither party’s argument is particularly compelling because neither draws on any strong empirical findings. That’s because convincing evidence doesn’t exist either way.

The impact of women’s health clinic closures on preventive care. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics [RePEcPublished July 2016

More than the UK, the US has a problem with anti-abortion campaigns having political influence to the extent that they affect the availability of health services for women. This study is interested in cancer screenings and routine check-ups, which aren’t politically contentious. The authors obtain data that include clinic locations and survey responses from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System. The analysis relates to Texas and Wisconsin, which are states that implemented major funding cuts to family planning services and women’s health centres between 2007 and 2012. 25% of clinics in Texas closed during this period. As centres close, and women are required to travel further, we’d expect use of services to decline. There might also be knock-on effects in terms of waiting times and prices at the remaining centres. The analyses focus on the effect of distance to the nearest facility on use of preventive services, controlling for demographics and fixed effects relating to location and time. The principal finding is that an increase in distance to a woman’s nearest facility is likely to reduce use of preventive care, namely Pap tests and clinical breast exams. A 100-mile increase in the distance to the nearest centre was associated with a 7.4% percentage point drop in propensity to receive a breast exam in the past year, and 8.7% for Pap tests. Furthermore, the analysis shows that the impact is greater for individuals with lower educational attainment, particularly in the case of mammography. These findings demonstrate the threat to women’s health posed by political posturing.

Photo credit: Antony Theobald (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)