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Competition and Quality in Healthcare  

Peter Sivey and Yijuan Chen

Quality competition between alternative providers is an increasingly important topic in the health economics literature. This literature includes theoretical and empirical studies that have been developed in parallel to 21st-century policies to increase competition between doctors or hospitals. Theoretical studies have clarified how competitive markets can give healthcare providers the incentive to improve quality. Broadly speaking, if providers have an incentive to attract more patients and patients value quality, providers will raise quality until the costs of raising quality are equal to the additional revenue from patients attracted by the rise in quality. The theoretical literature has also investigated how institutional and policy parameters determine quality levels in equilibrium. Important parameters in models of quality competition include the degree of horizontal differentiation, the level of information about provider quality, the costs of switching between providers, and the time-horizon of quality investment decisions. Empirical studies have focused on the prerequisites of quality competition (e.g., do patients choose higher quality providers?) and the impact of pro-competition policies on quality levels. The most influential studies have used modern econometric approaches, including difference-in differences and instrumental variables, to identify plausibly causal effects. The evidence suggests that in most contexts, quality is a determinant of patient choice of provider, especially after greater patient choice is made available or information is published about provider quality. The evidence that increases in competition improve quality in healthcare is less clear cut. Perhaps reflecting the economic theory of quality competition, showing that different parameter combinations or assumptions can produce different outcomes, empirical results are also mixed. While a series of high-quality studies in the United Kingdom appear to show strong improvements in quality in more competitive areas following pro-competition reforms introducing more choice and competition, other studies showed that these quality improvements do not extend to all types of healthcare or alternative measures of quality. The most promising areas for future research include investigating the “black box” of quality improvement under competition, and behavioral studies investigating financial and nonfinancial motivations for quality improvements in competitive markets.


The Economics of Diet and Obesity: Public Policy  

Fabrice Etilé

The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating. The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibria. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.


The Economics of Diet and Obesity: Understanding the Global Trends  

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.


Incentives in Healthcare Payment Systems  

Ching-to Albert Ma and Henry Y. Mak

Health services providers receive payments mostly from private or public insurers rather than patients. Provider incentive problems arise because an insurer misses information about the provider and patients, and has imperfect control over the provider’s treatment, quality, and cost decisions. Different provider payment systems, such as prospective payment, capitation, cost reimbursement, fee-for-service, and value-based payment, generate different treatment quality and cost incentives. The important issue is that a payment system implements an efficient quality-cost outcome if and only if it makes the provider internalize the social benefits and costs of services. Thus, the internalization principle can be used to evaluate payment systems across different settings. The most common payment systems are prospective payment, which pays a fixed price for service rendered, and cost reimbursement, which pays according to costs of service rendered. In a setting where the provider chooses health service quality and cost reduction effort, prospective payment satisfies the internalization principle but cost reimbursement does not. The reason is that prospective payment forces the provider to be responsible for cost, but cost reimbursement relieves the provider of the cost responsibility. Beyond this simple setting, the provider may select patients based on patients’ cost heterogeneity. Then neither prospective payment nor cost reimbursement achieves efficient quality and cost incentives. A mixed system that combines prospective payment and cost reimbursement performs better than each of its components alone. In general, the provider’s preferences and available strategies determine if a payment system may achieve internalization. If the provider is altruistic toward patients, prospective payment can be adjusted to accommodate altruism when the provider’s degree of altruism is known to the insurer. However, when the degree of altruism is unknown, even a mixed system may fail the internalization principle. Also, the internalization principle fails under prospective payment when the provider can upcode patient diagnoses for more favorable prices. Cost reimbursement attenuates the upcoding incentive. Finally, when the provider can choose many qualities, either prospective payment and cost reimbursement should be combined with the insurer’s disclosure on quality and cost information to satisfy the internalization principle. When good healthcare quality is interpreted as a good match between patients and treatments, payment design is to promote good matches. The internalization principle now requires the provider to bear benefits and costs of diagnosis effort and treatment choice. A mixed system may deliver efficient matching incentives. Payment systems necessarily interact with other incentive mechanisms such as patients’ reactions against the provider’s quality choice and other providers’ competitive strategies. Payment systems then become part of organizational incentives.


Price Regulation and Pay-for-Performance in Public Health Systems  

Luigi Siciliani

Payment systems based on fixed prices have become the dominant model to finance hospitals across OECD countries. In the early 1980s, Medicare in the United States introduced the diagnosis-related group (DRG) system. The idea was that hospitals should be paid a fixed price for treating a patient within a given diagnosis or treatment. The system then spread to other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom) and high-income countries (e.g., Canada, Australia). The change in payment system was motivated by concerns over rapid health expenditure growth and replaced financing arrangements based on reimbursing costs (e.g., in the United States) or fixed annual budgets (e.g., in the United Kingdom). A more recent policy development is the introduction of pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes, which, in most cases, pay directly for higher quality. This is also a form of regulated price payment but the unit of payment is a (process or outcome) measure of quality, as opposed to activity, that is admitting a patient with a given diagnosis or a treatment. Fixed price payment systems, either of the DRG type or the P4P type, affect hospital incentives to provide quality, contain costs, and treat the right patients (allocative efficiency). Quality and efficiency are ubiquitous policy goals across a range of countries. Fixed price regulation induces providers to contain costs and, under certain conditions (e.g., excess demand), offer some incentives to sustain quality. But payment systems in the health sector are complex. Since its inception, DRG systems have been continuously refined. From their initial (around) 500 tariffs, many DRG codes have been split in two or more finer ones to reflect heterogeneity in costs within each subgroup. In turn, this may give incentives to provide excessive intensive treatments or to code patients in more remunerative tariffs, a practice known as upcoding. Fixed prices also make it financially unprofitable to treat high cost patients. This is particularly problematic when patients with the highest costs have the largest benefits from treatment. Hospitals also differ systematically in costs and other dimensions, and some of these external differences are beyond their control (e.g., higher cost of living, land, or capital). Price regulation can be put in place to address such differences. The development of information technology has allowed constructing a plethora of quality indicators, mostly process measures of quality and in some cases health outcomes. These have been used both for public reporting, to help patients choose providers, but also for incentive schemes that directly pay for quality. P4P schemes are attractive but raise new issues, such as they might divert provider attention and unincentivized dimensions of quality might suffer as a result.