Prioritization in medicine
This book is not exactly the first book I’ve read on these kinds of topics (see for example my previous coverage of related topics here, here, here, here, here, and here), but the book did have some new stuff and I decided in the end that it was worth blogging, despite the fact that I did not think the book was particularly great. The book is slightly different from previous books I’ve read on related topics because normative aspects are covered in much greater detail – as they put it in the preface:
“This volume addresses normative dimensions of methodological and theoretical approaches, international experiences concerning the normative framework and the process of priority setting as well as the legal basis behind priorities. It also examines specific criteria for prioritization and discusses economic evaluation. […] Prioritization is necessary and inevitable – not only for reasons of resource scarcity, which might become worse in the next few years. But especially in view of an optimization of the supply structures, prioritization is an essential issue that will contribute to the capability and stability of healthcare systems. Therefore, our volume may give useful impulses to face challenges of appropriate prioritization.”
I’m generally not particularly interested in normative questions, preferring instead to focus on the empirical side of things, but the book did have some data as well. In the post I’ll focus on topics I found interesting, and I have made no attempt here to make the coverage representative of the sort of topics actually covered in the book; this is (as usual) a somewhat biased account of the material covered.
The book observes early and often that there’s no way around prioritization in medicine; you can’t not prioritize, because “By giving priority to one group, you ration care to the second group.” Every time you spend a dollar on cancer treatment, well, that’s a dollar you can’t spend on heart disease. So the key question in this context is how best to prioritize, rather than whether you should do it. It is noted in the text that there is a wide consensus that approaching and handling health care allocation rules explicitly is preferable to implicit rationing, a point I believe was also made in Glied and Smith. A strong argument can be made that clear and well-defined decision-rules will lead to better outcomes than implicit allocation decisions made by doctors during their day-to-day workload. The risks of leaving allocation decisions to physicians involve overtaxing medical practitioners (they are implicitly required to repeatedly take decisions which may be emotionally very taxing), problematic and unfair distribution patters of care, and there’s also a risk that such practices may erode trust between patients and physicians.
A point related to the fact that any prioritization decision made within the medical sector, regardless of whether the decision is made implicitly or explicitly, will necessarily affect all patient populations by virtue of the fact that resources used for one purpose cannot be used for another purpose, is that the health care sector is not the only sector in the economy; when you spend money on medicine that’s also money you can’t be spending on housing or education: “The competition between health-related resources and other goods is generally left to a political process. The fact that a societal budget for meeting health needs is the result of such a political process means that in all societies, some method of resolving disagreements about priorities is needed.” Different countries have different approaches to how to resolve these disagreements (and in large countries in particular, lower-level regional differences may also be important in terms of realized care provision allocation decisions), and the book covers systems applied in multiple different countries, including England, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the US state of Oregon.
Some observations and comments:
“A well-known unfairness objection against conventional cost-effectiveness analysis is the severity of diseases objection – the objection that the approach is blind as to whether the QALYs go to severely or to slightly ill patients. Another is the objection of disability discrimination – the objection that the approach is not blind between treating a life-threatening disease when it befalls a disabled patient and treating the same disease when it befalls a non-disabled patient. An ad hoc amendment for fairness problems like these is equity weighting. Equity weights are multiplication factors that are introduced in order to make some patient group’s QALYs count more than others.”
“There were an estimated 3 million people with diabetes in England in 2009; estimates suggest that the number of people with diabetes could rise to 4.6 million by 2030. There has also been a rapid rise in gastrointestinal diseases, particularly chronic liver disease where the under-65 mortality rate has increased 5-fold since 1970. Liver disease is strongly linked to the harmful use of alcohol and rising levels of obesity. […] the poorest members of the community are at most risk of neglecting their health. This group is more likely to eat, drink and smoke to excess and fail to take sufficient exercise.22 Accordingly, life expectancy in this community is shorter and the years spent of suffering from disability are much longer. […] Generic policies are effective in the sense that aggregate levels of health status improve and overall levels of morbidity and mortality fall. However, they are ineffective in reducing health inequalities; indeed, they may make them worse. The reason is that better-off groups respond more readily to public health campaigns. […] If policy-makers [on the other hand] disinvest from the majority to narrow the inequality gap with a minority resistant to change, this could reduce aggregate levels of health status in the community as a whole. [Health behaviours also incidentally tend to be quite resistant to change in general, and we really don’t know all that much about which sort of interventions work and/or how well they work – see also Thirlaway & Upton’s coverage] […] two out of three adults [in the UK] are overweight or obese; and inequalities in health remain widespread, with people in the poorest areas living on average 7 years fewer than those in the richest areas, and spending up to 17 more years living with poor health. […] the proportion of the total health budget invested in preventive medicine and health promotion […] is small. The UK spends about 3.6 % of its entire healthcare budget on public health projects of this nature (which is more than many other EU member states).”
Let’s talk a little bit about rationing. Rationing by delay (waiting lists) is a well-known method of limiting care, but it’s far from the only way to implicitly ration care in a manner which may be hidden from view; another way to limit care provision is to ration by dilution. This may happen when patients are seen on time (do recall that waiting lists are very common in the medical sector, for very natural reasons which I’ve discussed here on the blog before), but the quality of care that is provided to patients receiving care goes down. Rationing by dilution may sometimes be a result of attempts to limit rationing by delay; if you measure hospitals on whether or not they treat people within a given amount of time, the time dimension becomes very important in the treatment context and it may thus end up dominating other decision variables which should ideally take precedence over this variable in the specific clinical context. The book mentions as an example the Bristol Eye Hospital, where it is thought that 25 patients may have lost their sights because even though they were urgent cases which should have been high priority, they were not treated in time because there was a great institutional focus on not allowing waiting times of any patients on the waiting lists to cross the allowed maximum waiting time, meaning that much less urgent cases were treated instead of the urgent cases in order to make the numbers look good. A(n excessive?) focus on waiting lists may thus limit focus on patient needs, and similar problems pop up when other goals aside from patient needs are emphasized in an institutional context; hospital reorganisations undertaken in order to improve financial efficiency may also result in lower standards of care, and in the book multiple examples of this having happened in a British context are discussed. The chapter in question does not discuss this aspect, but it seems to me likely that rationing by dilution, or at least something quite similar to this, may also happen in the context of a rapid increase in capacity as a result of an attempt to address long waiting lists; if you for example decide to temporarily take on a lot of new and inexperienced nurses to lower the waiting list, these new nurses may not provide the same level of care as do the experienced nurses already present. A similar dynamic may probably be observed in a setting where the number of nurses does not change, but each patient is allocated less time with any given nurse than was previously the case.
“Public preferences have been shown not to align with QALY maximization (or health benefit maximization) across a variety of contexts […] and considerations affecting these preferences often extend well beyond strict utilitarian concerns […] age has been shown to be among the most frequently cited variables affecting the public’s prioritization decisions […] Most people are willing to use age as a criterion at least in some circumstances and at least in some ways. This is shown by empirical studies of public views on priority setting […] most studies suggest that a majority accepts that age can have some role in priority setting. […] Oliver [(2009)] found […] a wide range of context-dependent ‘decision rules’ emerged across the decision tasks that appeared to be dependent on the scenario presented. Respondents referenced reasons including maximizing QALYs,11 maximizing life-years or post-treatment quality of life,12 providing equal access to health care, maximizing health based on perceptions of adaptation, maximizing societal productivity (including familial roles, i.e. ‘productivity ageism’), minimizing suffering, minimizing costs, and distributing available resources equitably. As an illustration of its variability, he noted that 46 of the 50 respondents were inconsistent in their reasoning across the questions. Oliver commented that underlying values influence the respondents’ decisions, but if these values are context dependent, it becomes a challenge – if not impossible – to identify a preferred, overarching rule by which to distribute resources. […] Given the empirical observations that respondents do not seem to rely upon a consistent decision rule that is independent of the prioritization context, some have suggested that deliberative judgments be used to incorporate equity considerations […]. This means that decision makers may call upon a host of different ‘rules’ to set priorities depending on the context. When the patients are of similar ages, prioritization by severity may offer a morally justifiable solution, for example. In contrast, as the age discrepancy becomes greater between the two patients, there may be a point at which ‘the priority view’ (i.e. those who in the most dire conditions take precedence) no longer holds […] There is some evidence that indicates that public preferences do not support giving priority in instances where the intervention has a poor prognosis […] If older patients have poorer health outcomes as a result of certain interventions, [this] finding might imply that in these instances, they should receive lower priority or not be eligible for certain care. […] A substantial body of evidence indicates that the utilitarian approach of QALY maximization fails to adequately capture public preferences for a greater degree of equity into health-care distribution; however, how to go about incorporating these concerns remains unresolved.”
“roughly 35 % of the […] [UK] health expenditures were spent on the 13 % of our population over the age of 65. A similar statistic holds true for the European Union as well […] the elderly, on average, have many more health needs than the non-elderly. In the United States, 23 % of the elderly have five or more chronic health problems, some life-threatening, some quality-of-life diminishing (Thorpe et al. 2010). Despite this statistic, the majority of the elderly in any given year is quite healthy and makes minimal use of the health care system. Health needs tend to be concentrated. The sickest 5 % of the Medicare population consume 39 % of total Medicare expenditures, and the sickest 10 % consume 58 % of Medicare expenditures (Schoenman 2012). […] we are […] faced with the problem of where to draw the line with regard to a very large range of health deficiencies associated with advanced age. It used to be the case in the 1970s that neither dialysis nor kidney transplantation were offered as an option to patients in end-stage kidney failure who were beyond age 65 because it was believed they were not medically suitable. That is, both procedures were judged to be too burdensome for individuals who already had diminished health status. But some centers started dialyzing older patients with good results, and consequently, the fastest growing segment of the dialysis population today (2015) is over age 75. This phenomenon has now been generalized across many areas of surgery and medicine. […] What [many new] procedures have in common is that they are very expensive: $70,000 for coronary bypass surgery (though usually much more costly due to complication rates among the hyper-elderly); $200,000 for the LVAD [Left Ventricular Assist Device]; $100,000+ per month for prolonged mechanical ventilation. […] The average older recipient of an LVAD will gain one to two extra years of life […] there are now (2015) about 5.5 million Americans in various stages of heart failure and 550,000 new cases annually. Versions of the LVAD are still being improved, but the potential is that 200,000 of these devices could be implanted annually in the United States. That would add at least $40 billion per year to the cost of the Medicare program.”
“In the USA, around 40 % of premature mortality is attributed to behavioral patterns,2 and it is estimate[d] that around $1.3 trillion annually — around a third of the total health budget — is spent on preventable diseases.3 […] among the ten leading risk factors contributing to the burden of disease in high-income countries, seven can be directly attributed to unhealthy lifestyles. […] Private health insurance takes such factors into account when calculating premiums for health insurances (Olsen 2009). In contrast, publicly funded health-care systems are mainly based on the so-called solidarity principle, which generally excludes risk-based premiums. However, in some countries, several incentive schemes such as “fat taxes” […], bonuses, or reductions of premiums […] have recently been implemented in order to incorporate aspects of personal responsibility in public health-care systems. […] [An important point in this context is that] there are fundamental questions about whether […] better health leads to lower cost. Among other things, cost reductions are highly dependent on the period of time that one considers. What services are covered by a health system, and how its financing is managed, also matters. Regarding the relative lifetime cost of smokers, obese, and healthy people (never smokers, normal body mass index [BMI]) in the Netherlands, it has been suggested that the latter, and not the former two groups, are most costly — chiefly due to longer life and higher cost of care at the end of life.44 Other research suggests that incentivizing disease management programs rather than broader prevention programs is far more effective.45 Cost savings can therefore not be taken for granted but require consideration of the condition being incentivized, the organizational specifics of the health system, and, in particular, the time horizon over which possible savings are assessed. […] Policies seeking to promote personal responsibility for health can be structured in a very wide variety of ways, with a range of different consequences. In the best case, the stars are aligned and programs empower people’s health literacy and agency, reduce overall healthcare spending, alleviate resource allocation dilemmas, and lead to healthier and more productive workforces. But the devil is often in the detail: A focus on controlling or reducing cost can also lead to an inequitable distribution of benefits from incentive programs and penalize people for health risk factors that are beyond their control.”
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