Fabrice Etilé and Lisa Oberlander
In the last several decades obesity rates have risen significantly. In 2014, 10.8% and 14.9% of the world’s men and women, respectively, were obese as compared with 3.2% and 6.4% in 1975. The obesity “epidemic” has spread from high-income countries to emerging and developing ones in every region of the world. The rising obesity rates are essentially explained by a rise in total calorie intake associated with long-term global changes in the food supply. Food has become more abundant, available, and cheaper, but food affluence is associated with profound changes in the nutritional quality of supply. While calories have become richer in fats, sugar, and sodium, they are now lower in fiber. The nutrition transition from starvation to abundance and high-fat/sugar/salt food is thus accompanied by an epidemiological transition from infectious diseases and premature death to chronic diseases and longer lives. Food-related chronic diseases have important economic consequences in terms of human capital and medical care costs borne by public and private insurances and health systems.
Technological innovations, trade globalization, and retailing expansion are associated with these substantial changes in the quantity and quality of food supply and diet in developed as well as in emerging and rapidly growing economies. Food variety has significantly increased due to innovations in the food production process. Raw food is broken down to obtain elementary substances that are subsequently assembled for producing final food products. This new approach, as well as improvements in cold chain and packaging, has contributed to a globalization of food chains and spurred an increase of trade in food products, which, jointly with foreign direct investments, alters the domestic food supply. Finally, technological advancements have also favored the emergence of large supermarkets and retailers, which have transformed the industrial organization of consumer markets.
How do these developments affect population diets and diet-related diseases? Identifying the contribution of supply factors to long-term changes in diet and obesity is important because it can help to design innovative, effective, and evidence-based policies, such as regulations on trade, retailing, and quality or incentives for product reformulation. Yet this requires a correct evaluation of the importance and causal effects of supply-side factors on the obesity pandemic. Among others, the economic literature analyzes the effect of changes in food prices, food availability, trade, and marketing on the nutrition and epidemiological transitions. There is a lack of causal robust evidence on their long-term effects. The empirical identification of causal effects is de facto challenging because the dynamics of food supply is partly driven by demand-side factors and dynamics, like a growing female labor force, habit formation, and the social dynamics of preferences.
There are several important limitations to the literature from the early 21st century. Existing studies cover mostly well-developed countries, use static economic and econometric specifications, and employ data that cover short periods of time unmarked by profound shifts in food supply. In contrast, empirical research on the long-term dynamics of consumer behavior is much more limited, and comparative studies across diverse cultural and institutional backgrounds are almost nonexistent. Studies on consumers in emerging countries could exploit the rapid time changes and large spatial heterogeneity, both to identify the causal impacts of shocks on supply factors and to document how local culture and institutions shape diet and nutritional outcomes.
Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández
A set of policies is at the center of the agenda on early childhood development: parenting programs, childcare regulation and subsidies, cash and in-kind transfers, and parental leave policies. Incentives are embedded in these policies, and households react to them differently. They also have varying effects on child development, both in developed and developing countries. We have learned much about the impact of these policies in the past 20 years. We know that parenting programs can enhance child development, that centre based care might increase female labor force participation and child development, that parental leave policies beyond three months don’t cause improvement in children outcomes, and that the effects of transfers depend much on their design. In this review, we focus on the incentives embedded in these policies, and how they interact with the context and decision makers to understand the heterogeneity of effects and the mechanisms through which these policies work. We conclude by identifying areas of future research.
Sherry Glied and Richard Frank
Mental health economics addresses problems that are common to all of health economics, but that occur with greater severity in this context. Several characteristics of mental health conditions—age of onset, chronicity, observability, and external effects—make them particularly economically challenging, and a range of policies have evolved to address these problems. The need for insurance—and for social insurance—to address mental health problems has grown. There is an expanding number of effective treatments available for mental health conditions, and these treatments can be relatively costly. The particular characteristics of mental health conditions exacerbate the usual problems of moral hazard, adverse selection, and agency. There is increased recognition, in both the policy and economics literatures, of the array of services and supports required to enable people with severe mental illnesses to function in society’s mainstream. The need for such non-medical services, generates economic problems of cross-system coordination and opportunism. Moreover, the impairments imposed by mental disorders have become more disruptive to the labor market because the nature of work is changing in a manner that creates special disadvantages to people with these conditions. New directions for mental health economics would address these effects.
Life-cycle choices and outcomes over financial (e.g., savings, portfolio, work) and health-related variables (e.g., medical spending, habits, sickness, and mortality) are complex and intertwined. Indeed, labor/leisure choices can both affect and be conditioned by health outcomes, precautionary savings is determined by exposure to sickness and longevity risks, where the latter can both be altered through preventive medical and leisure decisions. Moreover, inevitable aging induces changes in the incentives and in the constraints for investing in one’s own health and saving resources for old age. Understanding these pathways poses numerous challenges for economic models.
The life-cycle data is indicative of continuous declines in health statuses and associated increases in exposure to morbidity, medical expenses, and mortality risks, with accelerating post-retirement dynamics. Theory suggests that risk-averse and forward-looking agents should rely on available instruments to insure against these risks. Indeed, market- and state-provided health insurance (e.g., Medicare) cover curative medical expenses. High end-of-life home and nursing-home expenses can be hedged through privately or publicly provided (e.g., Medicaid) long-term care insurance. The risk of outliving one’s financial resources can be hedged through annuities. The risk of not living long enough can be insured through life insurance.
In practice, however, the recourse to these hedging instruments remains less than predicted by theory. Slow-observed wealth drawdown after retirement is unexplained by bequest motives and suggests precautionary motives against health-related expenses. The excessive reliance on public pension (e.g., Social Security) and the post-retirement drop in consumption not related to work or health are both indicative of insufficient financial preparedness and run counter to consumption smoothing objectives. Moreover, the capacity to self-insure through preventive care and healthy habits is limited when aging is factored in. In conclusion, the observed health and financial life-cycle dynamics remain challenging for economic theory.
Elisa Tosetti, Rita Santos, Francesco Moscone, and Giuseppe Arbia
The spatial dimension of supply and demand factors is a very important feature of healthcare systems. Differences in health and behavior across individuals are due not only to personal characteristics but also to external forces, such as contextual factors, social interaction processes, and global health shocks. These factors are responsible for various forms of spatial patterns and correlation often observed in the data, which are desirable to include in health econometrics models.
This article describes a set of exploratory techniques and econometric methods to visualize, summarize, test, and model spatial patterns of health economics phenomena, showing their scientific and policy power when addressing health economics issues characterized by a strong spatial dimension. Exploring and modeling the spatial dimension of the two-sided healthcare provision may help reduce inequalities in access to healthcare services and support policymakers in the design of financially sustainable healthcare systems.
Marjon van der Pol and Alastair Irvine
The interest in eliciting time preferences for health has increased rapidly since the early 1990s. It has two main sources: a concern over the appropriate methods for taking timing into account in economics evaluations, and a desire to obtain a better understanding of individual health and healthcare behaviors. The literature on empirical time preferences for health has developed innovative elicitation methods in response to specific challenges that are due to the special nature of health. The health domain has also shown a willingness to explore a wider range of underlying models compared to the monetary domain. Consideration of time preferences for health raises a number of questions. Are time preferences for health similar to those for money? What are the additional challenges when measuring time preferences for health? How do individuals in time preference for health experiments make decisions? Is it possible or necessary to incentivize time preference for health experiments?
Henrik Andersson, Arne Risa Hole, and Mikael Svensson
Many public policies and individual actions have consequences for population health. To understand whether a (costly) policy undertaken to improve population health is a wise use of resources, analysts can use economic evaluation methods to assess the costs and benefits. To do this, it is necessary to evaluate the costs and benefits using the same metric, and for convenience, a monetary measure is commonly used. It is well established that money measures of a reduction in health risks can be theoretically derived using the willingness-to-pay concept. However, because a market price for health risks is not available, analysts have to rely on analytical techniques to estimate the willingness to pay using revealed- or stated-preference methods. Revealed-preference methods infer willingness to pay based on individuals’ actual behavior in markets related to health risks, and they include such approaches as hedonic pricing techniques. Stated-preference methods use a hypothetical market scenario in which respondents make trade-offs between wealth and health risks. Using, for example, a random utility framework, it is possible to directly estimate individuals’ willingness to pay by analyzing the trade-offs they make in the hypothetical scenario. Stated-preference methods are commonly applied using contingent valuation or discrete choice experiment techniques. Despite criticism and the shortcomings of both the revealed- and stated-preference methods, substantial progress has been made since the 1990s in using both approaches to estimate the willingness to pay for health-risk reductions.
Marisa Miraldo, Katharina Hauck, Antoine Vernet, and Ana Wheelock
Major medical innovations have greatly increased the efficacy of treatments, improved patient outcomes, and often reduced the cost of medical care. However, innovations do not diffuse uniformly across and within health systems. Due to the high complexity of medical treatment decisions, variations in clinical practice are inherent to healthcare delivery, regardless of technological advances, new ways of working, funding, and burden of disease. In this article we conduct a narrative literature review to identify and discuss peer-reviewed articles presenting a theoretical framework or empirical evidence of the factors associated with the adoption of innovation and clinical practice.
We find that variation in innovation adoption and medical practice is associated with multiple factors. First, patients’ characteristics, including medical needs and genetic factors, can crucially affect clinical outcomes and the efficacy of treatments. Moreover, differences in patients’ preferences can be an important source of variation. Medical treatments may need to take such patient characteristics into account if they are to deliver optimal outcomes, and consequently, resulting practice variations should be considered warranted and in the best interests of patients. However, socioeconomic or demographic characteristics, such as ethnicity, income, or gender are often not considered legitimate grounds for differential treatment. Second, physician characteristics—such as socioeconomic profile, training, and work-related characteristics—are equally an influential component of practice variation. In particular, so-called “practice style” and physicians’ attitudes toward risk and innovation adoption are considered a major source of practice variation, but have proven difficult to investigate empirically. Lastly, features of healthcare systems—notably, public coverage of healthcare expenditure, cost-based reimbursement of providers, and service-delivery organization, are generally associated with higher utilization rates and adoption of innovation.
Research shows some successful strategies aimed at reducing variation in medical decision-making, such as the use of decision aids, data feedback, benchmarking, clinical practice guidelines, blinded report cards, and pay for performance. But despite these advances, there is uneven diffusion of new technologies and procedures, with potentially severe adverse efficiency and equity implications.