Healthcare cost encompasses expenditures on the totality of scarce resources (implicit and explicit) given up (or allocated) to produce healthcare goods (e.g., drugs and medical devices) and services (e.g., hospital care and physician office services are major components). Healthcare cost accounting components (sources and uses of funds) tend to differ but can be similar enough across most of the world countries. The healthcare cost concept usually differs for consumers, politicians and health policy decision-makers, health insurers, employers, and the government. All else given, inefficient healthcare production implies higher economic cost and lower productivity of the resources deployed in the process. Healthcare productivity varies across health systems of the world countries, the production technologies used, regulatory instruments, and institutional settings. Healthcare production often involves some specific (e.g., drugs and medical devices, information and communication technologies) or general technology for diagnosing, treating, or curing diseases in order to improve or restore human health conditions. In the last half century, the different healthcare systems of the world countries have undergone fundamental transformations in the structural designs, institutional regulations, and socio-economic and demographic dimensions. The nations have allocated a rising share of total economic resources or incomes (i.e., Gross National Product, or GDP) to the healthcare sector and are consequently enjoying substantial increases in population health status and life expectancies. There are complex and interacting linkages among escalating healthcare costs, longer life expectancies, technological progress (or “the march of science”), and sectoral productivities in the health services sectors of the advanced economies. Healthcare policy debates often concentrate on cost-containment strategies and search for improved efficient resource allocation and equitable distribution of the sector’s outputs. Consequently, this contribution is a broad review of the body of literature on technological progress, productivity, and cost: three important dimensions of the evolving modern healthcare systems. It provides a logical integration of three strands of work linking healthcare cost to technology and research evidence on sectoral productivity measurements. Finally, some important aspects of the existing study limitations are noted to motivate new research directions for future investigations to explore in the growing health sector economies.
Albert A. Okunade and Ahmad Reshad Osmani
Richard Smith and Johanna Hanefeld
Global trade—the movement of goods, services, people, and capital between countries—is at the center of modern globalization. Since the late 20th century trade has also become established as a critical determinant of public health. As the raison d’être of trade is to increase both wealth and the availability of goods and services, changing trade patterns will inevitably impact many of the known determinants of health, including employment, nutrition, environmental factors, social capital, and education. Trade will also impact the health sector itself, most clearly through direct trade in health-related goods and services (such as pharmaceuticals, health workers, foreign direct investment in health services, and mobile patients), but also more broadly in determining tax receipts and thus overall public expenditures. It is also the case that trade—especially rapid and widespread movement of people, animals, and goods—may facilitate the rapid and widespread spread of disease. Trade, and associated policies governing and responding to that trade, has thus become increasingly recognized as a critical driver of health issues. The design of trade policies that reduce the potential health risks associated with freer trade while maximizing the positive impact of trade liberalization on the social determinants of health is still in its infancy. There remains a lack of sound empirical evidence demonstrating how trade liberalization links directly and indirectly to health. Even though the positive link between increased trade, poverty reduction, and economic growth is widely accepted, evidence regarding the impact of trade liberalization on the social determinants of health varies from one national context to another. Hence, adapting trade liberalization to national conditions is important in ensuring desired outcomes. Yet although evidence is necessary, it is not sufficient to ensure that health is more integrated in trade negotiations and decision-making. There is a substantive requirement for those with a health remit to engage in negotiation with those from other sectors and from other geographic locations.
Important health system challenges in the east and southeast Asian countries/territories of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia exist. The most commonly adopted health system among these areas is social health insurance. The high-income, aging societies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have adopted single-payer/single-pipe systems with a single uniform benefit package and a single fee schedule for paying providers for services included in the benefit package. All three have achieved universal coverage with relatively equitable access to affordable care. All grapple with overutilization, aging populations, and hospital-centric and curative-focused care that is ill-suited for addressing an increasing chronic disease burden. Rising patient expectations and demand for expensive technologies contribute to rising costs. Korea also faces comparatively poorer financial risk protection. China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines have also adopted social health insurance, though not single-payer systems. China and Thailand have established noncontributory schemes, whereby the government heavily subsidizes poor and non-poor populations. General tax revenue is used to extend coverage to those outside formal-sector employment. Both countries use multiple, unintegrated schemes to cover their populations. Thailand has improved access to care and financial risk protection. While China has improved insurance coverage, financial risk protection gains have been limited due to low levels of service coverage, fee-for-service payment systems, poor gatekeeping, and the fee schedule that incentivizes overprescription of tests and medicine. Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines use contributory schemes. Government revenue provides insurance coverage for the poor, near-poor, and selected vulnerable populations; the rest of the population must contribute to enroll. Therefore, expanding insurance coverage to the informal sector has been a significant challenge. Instead of social health insurance, Hong Kong and Malaysia have two-tiered health systems where the public sector is financed by general tax revenue and the private sector is financed primarily by out-of-pocket payments and limited private insurance. There is universal access to care; free or subsidized, good-quality public-sector services provide financial risk protection. However, Hong Kong and Malaysia have fragmented delivery systems, weak primary care, budgetary strains, and inequitable access to private care (which may offer shorter wait times and better perceived quality). Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar’s health systems feature high out-of-pocket spending, low government investment in health, and reliance on external aid. User fees, low insurance coverage, unequal distribution of health services, and fragmented financing pose pressing challenges to achieving equitable access and adequate financial risk protection. These countries/territories are diverse in terms of demographics, epidemiological profiles, and stages of economic development, and thus they face different health system challenges and opportunities. This diversity also suggests that these nations/territories will utilize different types of health systems to achieve universal health coverage, whereby all people have equitable access to affordable, good-quality care with adequate financial risk protection.
Since the 1980s policymakers have identified a wide range of policy interventions to improve hospital performance. Some of these have been initiated at the level of government, whereas others have taken the form of decisions made by individual hospitals but have been guided by regulatory or financial incentives. Studies investigating the impact that some of the most important of these interventions have had on hospital performance can be grouped into four different research streams. Among the research streams, the strongest evidence exists for the effects of privatization. Studies on this topic use longitudinal designs with control groups and have found robust increases in efficiency and financial performance. Evidence on the entry of hospitals into health systems and the effects of this on efficiency is similarly strong. Although the other three streams of research also contain well-conducted studies with valuable findings, they are predominantly cross-sectional in design and therefore cannot establish causation. While the effects of introducing DRG-based hospital payments and of specialization are largely unclear, vertical and horizontal cooperation probably have a positive effect on efficiency and financial performance. Lastly, the drivers of improved efficiency or financial performance are very different depending on the reform or intervention being investigated; however, reductions in the number of staff and improved bargaining power in purchasing stand out as being of particular importance. Several promising avenues for future investigation are identified. One of these is situated within a new area of research examining the link between changes in the prices of treatments and hospitals’ responses. As there is evidence of unintended effects, future studies should attempt to distinguish between changes in hospitals’ responses at the intensive margin (e.g., upcoding) versus the extensive margin (e.g., increase in admissions). When looking at the effects of entering into a health system and of privatizations, there is still considerable need for research. With privatizations, in particular, the underlying processes are not yet fully understood, and the potential trade-offs between increases in performance and changes in the quality of care have not been sufficiently examined. Lastly, there is substantial need for further papers in the areas of multi-institutional arrangements and cooperation, as well as specialization. In both research streams, natural experiments carried out using program evaluation design are lacking. One of the main challenges here, however, is that cooperation and specialization cannot be directly observed but rather must be constructed based on survey or administrative data.
André Medici and Maureen Lewis
Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries have experienced a long-term process of improvement in populational health conditions, shifting their health priorities from child–mother care and transmissible diseases to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). However, persistent socioeconomic inequalities create barriers to achieve universal health coverage (UHC). Despite a high level of governmental commitment to UHC, and rising coverage, approximately 25% of the population does not have access to healthcare, particularly in rural and outlying areas. Health system quality issues have been largely ignored, and inefficiency, from health financing to health delivery, is not on the policy agenda. The use of incentives to improve performance are rare in LAC health systems and there are political barriers to introduce reforms in payment systems in the public sector, though the private sector has opportunity to adapt change. Fragmentation in the financing of healthcare is a common theme in the region. Most systems retain social health insurance (SHI) schemes, mostly for the formal sector, and in some cases have more than one; and parallel National Health System (NHS)-type arrangements for the poor and those in the informal labor market. The cost and inefficiency in delivery and financing is considerable. Regional health economics literature stresses inadequate funding—despite the fact that the region has the highest inequality in access and spends the most on healthcare across the regions—and analyzes multiple aspects of health equity. The agenda needs to move from these debates to designing and leveraging delivery and payment systems that target performance and efficiency. The absence of research on payment arrangements and performance is a symptom of a health management culture based on processes rather than results. Indeed, health services in the region remain rooted in a culture of fee-for-service and supply-driven models, where expenditures are independent of outcomes. Health policy reforms in LAC need to address efficiency rather than equity, integrate healthcare delivery, and tackle provider payment reforms. The integration of medical records, adherence to protocols and clinical pathways, establishment of health networks built around primary healthcare, along with harmonized incentives and payment systems, offer a direction for reforms that allow adapting to existing circumstances and institutions. This offers the best path for sustainable UHC in the region.
Anna Vassall, Fiammetta Bozzani, and Kara Hanson
In order to secure effective service access, coverage, and impact, it is increasingly recognized that the introduction of novel health technologies such as diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines may require additional investment to address the constraints under which many health systems operate. Health-system constraints include a shortage of health workers, ineffective supply chains, or inadequate information systems, or organizational constraints such as weak incentives and poor service integration. Decision makers may be faced with the question of whether to invest in a new technology, including the specific health system strengthening needed to ensure effective implementation; or they may be seeking to optimize resource allocation across a range of interventions including investment in broad health system functions or platforms. Investment in measures to address health-system constraints therefore increasingly need to undergo economic evaluation, but this poses several methodological challenges for health economists, particularly in the context of low- and middle-income countries. Designing the appropriate analysis to inform investment decisions concerning new technologies incorporating health systems investment can be broken down into several steps. First, the analysis needs to comprehensively outline the interface between the new intervention and the system through which it is to be delivered, in order to identify the relevant constraints and the measures needed to relax them. Second, the analysis needs to be rooted in a theoretical approach to appropriately characterize constraints and consider joint investment in the health system and technology. Third, the analysis needs to consider how the overarching priority- setting process influences the scope and output of the analysis informing the way in which complex evidence is used to support the decision, including how to represent and manage system wide trade-offs. Finally, there are several ways in which decision analytical models can be structured, and parameterized, in a context of data scarcity around constraints. This article draws together current approaches to health system thinking with the emerging literature on analytical approaches to integrating health-system constraints into economic evaluation to guide economists through these four issues. It aims to contribute to a more health-system-informed approach to both appraising the cost-effectiveness of new technologies and setting priorities across a range of program activities.