I was debating whether to blog this book at all, as it’s neither very long nor very good, but I decided it was worth adding a few observations from the book here. You can read my goodreads review of the publication here. Whenever quotes look a bit funny in the coverage below (i.e. when you see things like words in brackets or strangely located ‘[…]’, assume that the reason for this is that I tried to improve upon the occasionally frankly horrible language of some of the contributors to the publication. If you want to know exactly what they wrote, rather than what they presumably meant to write (basic grammar errors due to the authors having trouble with the English language are everywhere in this publication, and although I did choose to do so here I do feel a bit uncomfortable quoting a publication like this one verbatim on my blog), read the book.

I went off on a tangent towards the end of the post and I ended up adding some general remarks about medical cost, insurance and various other topics. So the post may have something of interest even to people who may not be highly interested in any of the stuff covered in the book itself.

“Despite intensive recommendations, [the] influenza vaccination rate in medical staff in Poland ranges from about 20 % in physicians to 10 % in nurses. […] It has been demonstrated that vaccination of health care workers against influenza significantly decreases mortality of elderly people remaining under [long-term care]. […] Vaccinating health care workers also substantially reduces sickness absenteeism, especially in emergency units […] Concerning physicians, vaccination avoidance stemmed from the lack of knowledge of protective value of vaccine (33 %), lack of time to get vaccinated (29 %), and Laziness (24 %). In nurses, these figures amounted to 55 %, 12 %, and 5 %, respectively (Zielonka et al. 2009).”

I just loved the fact that ‘laziness’ was included here as an explanatory variable, but on the other hand the fact that one-third of doctors cited lack of knowledge about the protective value of vaccination as a reason for not getting vaccinated is … well, let’s use the word ‘interesting’. But it gets even better:

“The questions asked and opinions expressed by physicians or nurses on vaccinations showed that their knowledge in this area was far from the current evidence-based medicine recommendations. Nurses, in particular, commonly presented opinions similar to those which can be found in anti-vaccination movements and forums […] The attitude of physicians toward influenza vaccination vary greatly. In many a ward, a majority of physicians were vaccinated (70–80 %). However, in the neurology and intensive care units the proportion of vaccinated physicians amounted only to 20 %. The reason for such a small yield […] was a critical opinion about the effectiveness and safety of vaccination. Similar differences, depending on medical specialty, were observed in Germany (4–71% of vaccines) (Roggendorf et al. 2011) […] It is difficult to explain the fear of influenza vaccination among the staff of intensive care units, since these are exactly the units where many patients with most severe cases of influenza are admitted and often die (Ayscue et al. 2014). In this group of health care workers, high efficiency of influenza vaccination has been clearly demonstrated […] In the present study a strong difference between the proportion of vaccinated physicians (55 %) and nurses (21 %) was demonstrated, which is in line with some data coming from other countries. In the US, 69 % of physicians and 46 % of nurses get a vaccine shot […] and in Germany the respective percentages are 39 % and 17 % […] In China, 21 % of nurses and only 13 % of physicians are vaccinated against influenza (Seale et al. 2010a), and in [South] Korea, 91 % and 68 % respectively (Lee et al. 2008).”

“[A] survey was conducted among Polish (243) and foreign (80) medical students at the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin, Poland. […] The survey results reveal that about 40 % of students were regular or occasional smoker[s]. […] 60 % of students declared themselves to be non-smokers, 20 % were occasional smokers, and 20 % were regular smokers”

40 % of medical students in a rather large sample turned out to be smokers. Wow. Yeah, I hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d probably expect a few alcoholics and I would probably not have been surprised about a hypothetical higher-than-average alcohol consumption in a sample like that (they don’t talk about alcohol so I don’t have data on this, I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised – after all I do know that doctors are high-risk for suicide), but such a large proportion smoking? That’s unexpected. It probably shouldn’t have been, considering that this is very much in line with the coverage included in Thirlaway & Upton’s book. I include some remarks about their coverage about smoking in my third post about the book here. The important observation of note from that part of the book’s coverage is probably that most smokers want to quit and yet very few manage to actually do it. “Although the majority of smokers want to stop smoking and predict that they will have stopped in twelve months, only 2–3 per cent actually stops permanently a year (Taylor et al. 2006).” If those future Polish doctors know that smoking is bad for them, but they assume that they can just ‘stop in time’ when ‘the time’ comes – well, some of those people are probably in for a nasty surprise (and they should have studied some more, so that they’d known this?).

A prospective study of middle-aged British men […] revealed that the self-assessment of health status was strongly associated with mortality. Men who reported poor health had an eight-fold increase in total mortality compared with those reporting excellent health. Those who assessed their health as poor were manual workers, cigarette smokers, and often heavy drinkers. Half of those with poor health suffered from chest pain on exertion and other chronic diseases. Thus, self-assessment of health status appears to be a good measure of current physical health and risk of death“.

It is estimated that globally 3.1 million people die each year due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). According to the World Health Organization (WHO 2014), the disease was the third leading cause of death worldwide in 2012. [In the next chapter of the book they state that: “COPD is currently the fourth leading cause of death among adult patients globally, and it is projected that it will be the third most common cause of death by 2020.” Whether it’s the third or fourth most common cause of death, it definitely kills a lot of people…] […] Approximately 40–50 % of lifelong smokers will go on to develop COPD […] the number of patients with a primary diagnosis of COPD […] constitutes […] 1.33 % of the total population of Poland. This result is consistent with that obtained during the Polish Spirometry Day in 2011 (Dabrowiecki et al. 2013) when 1.1 % of respondents declared having had a diagnosed COPD, while pulmonary function tests showed objectively the presence of obstruction in 12.3 % of patients.”

Based on numbers like these I feel tempted to conclude that the lungs may be yet another organ in which a substantial proportion of people of advanced age experience low-level organ dysfunction arguably not severe enough to lead to medical intervention. The kidneys are similar, as I also noted when I covered Longmore et al.‘s text.

“Generally, the costs of treatment of patients with COPD are highly variable […] estimates suggest […] that the costs of treatment of moderate stages of COPD may be 3–4-fold higher in comparison with the mild form of the disease, and in the severe form they reach up to 6–10 times the basic cost […] every second person with COPD is of working age […] Admission rates for COPD patients differ as much as 10-fold between European countries (European Lung White Book 2013).”

“In the EU, the costs of respiratory diseases are estimated at 6 % of the budget allocated to health care. Of this amount, 56 % is allocated for the treatment of COPD patients. […] Studies show that one per ten Poles over 30 year of age have COPD symptoms. Each year, around 4 % of all hospitalizations are due to COPD. […] One of the most important parameters regarding pharmacoeconomics is the hospitalization rate […] a high number of hospitalizations due to COPD exacerbations in Poland dramatically increase direct medical costs.”

I bolded the quote above because I knew this but had never seen it stated quite as clearly as it’s stated here, and I may be tempted to quote that one later on. Hospitalizations are often really expensive compared to drugs people who are not hospitalized take for their various health conditions, for example you can probably buy a year’s worth of anti-diabetic drugs, or more, for the costs of just one hospital admission due to drug mis-dosing. Before you get the idea that this might have ‘obvious implications’ for how ‘one’ should structure medical insurance arrangements in terms of copay structures etc., do however keep in mind that the picture here is really confusing:


Here’s the link, with more details – the key observation is that: “There is no consistency […] in the direction of change in costs resulting from changes in compliance”. That’s not diabetes, that’s ‘stuff in general’.

It would be neat if you could e.g. tell a story about how high costs of a drug always lead to non-compliance, which lead to increased hospitalization rates, which lead to higher costs than if the drugs had been subsidized. That would be a very strong case for subsidization. Or it would be neat if you could say that it doesn’t matter whether you subsidize a drug or not, because the costs of drugs are irrelevant in terms of usage patterns – people are told to take one pill every day by their doctor, and by golly that’s what they’re doing, regardless of what those pills cost. I know someone personally who wrote a PhD thesis about a drug where that clearly wasn’t the case, and the price elasticity was supposed to be ‘theoretically low’ in that case, so that one’s obviously out ‘in general’, but the point is that people have looked at this stuff, a lot. I’m assuming you might be able to spot a dynamic like this in some situations, and different dynamics in the case of other drugs. It gets even better when you include complicating phenomena like cost-switching; perhaps the guy/organization responsible for potentially subsidizing the drug is not the same guy(/-…) as the guy who’s supposed to pay for the medical admissions (this depends on the insurance structure/setup). But that’s not always the case, and the decision as to who pays for what is not necessarily a given; it may depend e.g. on health care provider preferences, and those preferences may themselves depend upon a lot of things unrelated to patient preferences or -incentives. A big question even in the relatively simple situation where the financial structure is – for these purposes at least – simple, is also the extent to which relevant costs are even measured, and/or how they’re measured (if a guy dies due to a binding budget constraint resulting in no treatment for a health condition that would have been treatable with a drug, is that outcome supposed to be ‘very cheap’ (he didn’t pay anything for  drugs, so there were no medical outlays) or very expensive (he could have worked for another two decades if he’d been treated, and those productivity losses need to be included in the calculation somehow; to focus solely on medical outlays is thus to miss the point)? An important analytical point here is that if you don’t explicitly make those deaths/productivity losses expensive, they are going to look very cheap, because the default option will always be to have them go unrecorded and untallied.

A problem not discussed in the coverage was incidentally the extent to which survey results pertaining to the cost of vaccination are worth much. You ask doctors why they didn’t get vaccinated, and they tell you it’s because it’s too expensive. Well, how many of them would you have expected to tell you they did not get vaccinated because the vaccines were too cheap? This is more about providing people with a perceived socially acceptable out than it is about finding stuff out about their actual reasons for behaving the way they do. If the price of vaccination does not vary across communities it’s difficult to estimate the price elasticity, true (if it does, you probably got an elasticity estimate right there), but using survey information to implicitly assess the extent to which the price is too high? Allow the vaccination price to vary next year/change it/etc. (or even simpler/cheaper, if those data exist; look at price variation which happened in the past and observe how the demand varied), and see if/how the doctors and nurses respond. That’s how you do this, you don’t ask people. Asking people is also actually sort of risky; I’m pretty sure a smart doctor could make an argument that if you want doctors to get vaccinated you should pay them for getting the shot – after all, getting vaccinated is unpleasant, and as mentioned there are positive externalities here in terms of improved patient outcomes, which might translate into specific patients not dying, which is probably a big deal, for those patients at least. The smart doctor wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; if the price of vaccination was ‘sufficiently low’, i.e. a ‘large’ negative number (‘if you get vaccinated, we give you $10.000’), I’m pretty sure coverage rates would go up a lot. That doesn’t make it a good idea. (Or a bad idea per se, for that matter – it depends upon the shape of the implicit social welfare function we’re playing around with. Though I must add – so that any smart doctors potentially reading along here don’t get any ideas – that a ‘large’ negative price of vaccination for health care workers is a bad idea if a cheaper option which achieves the same outcome is potentially available to the decision makers in question, which seems highly likely to me. For example vaccination rates of medical staff would also go up a lot if regular vaccinations were made an explicit condition of their employment, the refusal of which would lead to termination of their employment… There would be implicit costs of such a scheme, in terms of staff selection effects, but if you’re comparing solely those options and you’re the guy who makes the financial decisions..?)

August 22, 2016 - Posted by | books, economics, medicine

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