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Article

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.

Article

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 Groups (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.

Article

Mental illnesses are highly prevalent and can have considerable, enduring consequences for individuals, families, communities, and economies. Despite these high prevalence rates, mental illnesses have not received as much public policy commitment or funding as might be expected. One result is that mental illness often goes unrecognized and untreated. The resultant costs are felt not only in healthcare systems, but across many other sectors, including housing, social care, criminal justice, welfare benefits, and employment. This article sets out the basic principles of economic evaluation, with illustrations in this mental health context. It also discusses the main practical challenges when conducting and interpreting evidence from such evaluations. Decisions about whether to spend resources on a treatment or prevention strategy are based on whether it is likely to be effective in avoiding, reducing, or curing symptoms, improving quality of life, or achieving other individual-level outcomes. The economic evaluation question is whether the outcomes achieved are sufficient to justify the cost that is incurred in delivering the intervention. An economic evaluation has five elements: clarification of the question to be addressed; specification of the intervention to be evaluated and with what alternative it is being compared; the outcomes to be measured; the costs to be measured (including the cost of implementing the intervention and any savings that might accrue); and finally, how outcome and cost findings are to be blended to make a recommendation to the decision-maker. Sometimes, if an evaluation finds that one intervention has better outcomes but higher costs, then the evaluation should also how one (the outcomes) might be trade-off for the other (the costs). The article illustrates how economic evaluations have been undertaken and employed to address a range of questions, from the very strategic issue to the more specific clinical question. The purpose of the study can, to some extent, determine the type of evaluation that is needed. Examples of evaluations are given in a number of areas: perinatal maternal mental illness; parenting programs for conduct disorder; anti-bullying programs in schools; early intervention services for psychosis; individual placement and support; collaborative care for physical health problems; and suicide prevention. The challenges of economic evaluation are discussed, specifically in the mental health field.

Article

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.

Article

Jordan Everson and Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin

The potential for health information technology (HIT) to reshape the information-intensive healthcare industry has been recognized for decades. Nevertheless, the adoption and use of IT in healthcare has lagged behind other industries, motivating governments to take a role in supporting its use to achieve envisioned benefits. This dynamic has led to three major strands of research. Firstly, the relatively slow and uneven adoption of HIT, coupled with government programs intended to speed adoption, has raised the issue of who is adopting HIT, and the impact of public programs on rates of adoption and diffusion. Secondly, the realization of benefits from HIT appears to be occurring more slowly than its proponents had hoped, leading to an ongoing need to empirically measure the effect of its use on the quality and efficiency of healthcare as well as the contexts under which benefits are best realized. Thirdly, increases in the adoption and use of HIT have led to the potential for interoperable exchange of patient information and the dynamic use of that information to drive improvements in the healthcare delivery system; however, these applications require developing new approaches to overcoming barriers to collaboration between healthcare organizations and the HIT industry itself. Intertwined through each of these issues is the interaction between HIT as a tool for standardization and systemic change in the practice of healthcare, and healthcare professionals’ desire to preserve autonomy within the increasingly structured healthcare delivery system. Innovative approaches to improve the interactions between professionals, technology, and market forces are therefore necessary to capitalize on the promise of HIT and develop a continually learning health system.

Article

Matteo Lippi Bruni, Irene Mammi, and Rossella Verzulli

In developed countries, the role of public authorities as financing bodies and regulators of the long-term care sector is pervasive and calls for well-planned and informed policy actions. Poor quality in nursing homes has been a recurrent concern at least since the 1980s and has triggered a heated policy and scholarly debate. The economic literature on nursing home quality has thoroughly investigated the impact of regulatory interventions and of market characteristics on an array of input-, process-, and outcome-based quality measures. Most existing studies refer to the U.S. context, even though important insights can be drawn also from the smaller set of works that covers European countries. The major contribution of health economics to the empirical analysis of the nursing home industry is represented by the introduction of important methodological advances applying rigorous policy evaluation techniques with the purpose of properly identifying the causal effects of interest. In addition, the increased availability of rich datasets covering either process or outcome measures has allowed to investigate changes in nursing home quality properly accounting for its multidimensional features. The use of up-to-date econometric methods that, in most cases, exploit policy shocks and longitudinal data has given researchers the possibility to achieve a causal identification and an accurate quantification of the impact of a wide range of policy initiatives, including the introduction of nurse staffing thresholds, price regulation, and public reporting of quality indicators. This has helped to counteract part of the contradictory evidence highlighted by the strand of works based on more descriptive evidence. Possible lines for future research can be identified in further exploration of the consequences of policy interventions in terms of equity and accessibility to nursing home care.

Article

Jun Li and Edward C. Norton

Pay-for-performance programs have become a prominent supply-side intervention to improve quality and decrease spending in health care, touching upon long-term care, acute care, and outpatient care. Pay-for-performance directly targets long-term care, with programs in nursing homes and home health. Indirectly, pay-for-performance programs targeting acute care settings affect clinical practice for long-term care providers through incentives for collaboration across settings. As a whole, pay-for-performance programs entail the identification of problems it seeks to solve, measurement of the dimensions it seeks to incentivize, methods to combine and translate performance to incentives, and application of the incentives to reward performance. For the long-term care population, pay-for-performance programs must also heed the unique challenges specific to the sector, such as patients with complex health needs and distinct health trajectories, and be structured to recognize the challenges of incentivizing performance improvement when there are multiple providers and payers involved in the care delivery. Although empirical results indicate modest effectiveness of pay-for-performance in long-term care on improving targeted measures, some research has provided more clarity on the role of pay-for-performance design on the output of the programs, highlighting room for future research. Further, because health care is interconnected, the indirect effects of pay-for-performance programs on long-term care is an underexplored topic. As the scope of pay-for-performance in long-term care expands, both within the United States and internationally, pay-for-performance offers ample opportunities for future research.

Article

Sheilagh Ogilvie

Guilds ruled many European crafts and trades from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Each guild regulated entry to its occupation, requiring any practitioner to become a guild member and then limiting admission to the guild. Guilds intervened in the markets for their members’ products, striving to keep prices high, limit output, suppress competition, and block innovations that might disrupt the status quo. Guilds also acted in input markets, seeking to control access to raw materials, keep wages low, hinder employers from competing for workers, and prevent workers from agitating for better conditions. Guilds treated women particularly severely, usually excluding them from apprenticeship and forbidding any female other than a guild member’s widow from running a workshop. Guilds invested large sums in lobbying governments and political elites to grant, maintain, and extend these privileges. Guilds had the potential to compensate for their cartelistic activities by creating countervailing benefits. Guild quality certification was one possible solution to information asymmetries between producers and consumers, which could have made markets work better. Guild apprenticeship had the potential to solve imperfections in markets for skilled training, and thus to encourage human capital investment. The cartel profits generated by guilds could in theory have encouraged technological innovation by enabling guild masters to appropriate more of the social benefits of their innovations, while guild journeymanship and spatial clustering could diffuse new technical knowledge. A rich scholarship on European guilds makes it possible to assess the degree to which guilds created such benefits, outweighing the harm they caused. After about 1500, guild strength diverged across Europe, declining gradually in Flanders, the Netherlands, and England, surviving in France and Italy, and intensifying across large tracts of Iberia, Scandinavia, and the German-speaking lands. The activities of guilds contributed to variations across Europe in economic performance, urban growth, and inequality. Guilds interacted significantly with both markets and states, which helps explain why European economies diverged in the crucial centuries before industrialization.

Article

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.

Article

Diane McIntyre, Amarech G. Obse, Edwine W. Barasa, and John E. Ataguba

Within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to critically review research on healthcare financing in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from the perspective of the universal health coverage (UHC) goals of financial protection and access to quality health services for all. There is a concerning reliance on direct out-of-pocket payments in many SSA countries, accounting for an average of 36% of current health expenditure compared to only 22% in the rest of the world. Contributions to health insurance schemes, whether voluntary or mandatory, contribute a small share of current health expenditure. While domestic mandatory prepayment mechanisms (tax and mandatory insurance) is the next largest category of healthcare financing in SSA (35%), a relatively large share of funding in SSA (14% compared to <1% in the rest of the world) is attributable to, sometimes unstable, external funding sources. There is a growing recognition of the need to reduce out-of-pocket payments and increase domestic mandatory prepayment financing to move towards UHC. Many SSA countries have declared a preference for achieving this through contributory health insurance schemes, particularly for formal sector workers, with service entitlements tied to contributions. Policy debates about whether a contributory approach is the most efficient, equitable and sustainable means of financing progress to UHC are emotive and infused with “conventional wisdom.” A range of research questions must be addressed to provide a more comprehensive empirical evidence base for these debates and to support progress to UHC.

Article

Anthropometrics is a research program that explores the extent to which economic processes affect human biological processes using height and weight as markers. This agenda differs from health economics in the sense that instead of studying diseases or longevity, macro manifestations of well-being, it focuses on cellular-level processes that determine the extent to which the organism thrives in its socio-economic and epidemiological environment. Thus, anthropometric indicators are used as a proxy measure for the biological standard of living as complements to conventional measures based on monetary units. Using physical stature as a marker, we enabled the profession to learn about the well-being of children and youth for whom market-generated monetary data are not abundant even in contemporary societies. It is now clear that economic transformations such as the onset of the Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth were accompanied by negative externalities that were hitherto unknown. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the Welfare States of Western and Northern Europe take better care of the biological needs of their citizens than the market-oriented health-care system of the United States. Obesity has reached pandemic proportions in the United States affecting 40% of the population. It is fostered by a sedentary and harried lifestyle, by the diminution in self-control, the spread of labor-saving technologies, and the rise of instant gratification characteristic of post-industrial society. The spread of television and a fast-food culture in the 1950s were watershed developments in this regard that accelerated the process. Obesity poses a serious health risk including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer and its cost reaches $150 billion per annum in the United States or about $1,400 per capita. We conclude that the economy influences not only mortality and health but reaches bone-deep into the cellular level of the human organism. In other words, the economy is inextricably intertwined with human biological processes.