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Article

Qualitative Methods in Health Economics  

Joanna Coast and Manuela De Allegri

Qualitative methods are being used increasingly by health economists, but most health economists are not trained in these methods and may need to develop expertise in this area. This article discusses important issues of ontology, epistemology, and research design, before addressing the key issues of sampling, data collection, and data analysis in qualitative research. Understanding differences in the purpose of sampling between qualitative and quantitative methods is important for health economists, and the key notion of purposeful sampling is described. The section on data collection covers in-depth and semistructured interviews, focus-group discussions, and observation. Methods for data analysis are then discussed, with a particular focus on the use of inductive methods that are appropriate for economic purposes. Presentation and publication are briefly considered, before three areas that have seen substantial use of qualitative methods are explored: attribute development for discrete choice experiment, priority-setting research, and health financing initiatives.

Article

Healthcare System Challenges in Asia  

Winnie Yip

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.

Article

Economics of Cancer Prevention and Control  

Ya-Chen Tina Shih

The goal of cancer prevention and control is to reduce cancer risk, morbidity, and mortality through transdisciplinary collaborations across biomedical, behavioral, and social sciences. Risk reduction, early detection, and timely treatment are the rationales behind policy efforts to promote cancer prevention. Economics makes three important contributions to cancer prevention and control research. Firstly, research built upon the human capital model by Grossman and the insurance model by Ehrlich and Becker offers solid theoretical foundations to study human behaviors related to preventive care. Secondly, economic evaluation provides useful analytical tools to assess the “cancer premium” (through the stated preference research approach) and to identify the optimal screening strategy (through cost-effectiveness analysis). Lastly, the rich set of quantitative methods in applied economics contributes to the estimation of the relative contribution of prevention versus treatment in the reduction of cancer mortality and the evaluation of the impact of guidelines to regulate screening practices or policy initiatives to promote cancer screening.

Article

Health Status Measurement  

John Mullahy

Health status measurement issues arise across a wide spectrum of applications in empirical health economics research as well as in public policy, clinical, and regulatory contexts. It is fitting that economists and other researchers working in these domains devote scientific attention to the measurement of those phenomena most central to their investigations. While often accepted and used uncritically, the particular measures of health status used in empirical investigations can have sometimes subtle but nonetheless important implications for research findings and policy action. How health is characterized and measured at the individual level and how such individual-level measures are summarized to characterize the health of groups and populations are entwined considerations. Such measurement issues have become increasingly salient given the wealth of health data available from population surveys, administrative sources, and clinical records in which researchers may be confronted with competing options for how they go about characterizing and measuring health. While recent work in health economics has seen significant advances in the econometric methods used to estimate and interpret quantities like treatment effects, the literature has seen less focus on some of the central measurement issues necessarily involved in such exercises. As such, increased attention ought to be devoted to measuring and understanding health status concepts that are relevant to decision makers’ objectives as opposed to those that are merely statistically convenient.

Article

Financial Protection Against Medical Expense  

Owen O'Donnell

Financial protection is claimed to be an important objective of health policy. Yet there is a lack of clarity about what it is and no consensus on how to measure it. This impedes the design of efficient and equitable health financing. Arguably, the objective of financial protection is to shield nonmedical consumption from the cost of healthcare. The instruments are formal health insurance and public finances, as well as informal and self-insurance mechanisms that do not impair earnings potential. There are four main approaches to the measurement of financial protection: the extent of consumption smoothing over health shocks, the risk premium (willingness to pay in excess of a fair premium) to cover uninsured medical expenses, catastrophic healthcare payments, and impoverishing healthcare payments. The first of these does not restrict attention to medical expenses, which limits its relevance to health financing policy. The second rests on assumptions about risk preferences. No measure treats medical expenses that are financed through informal insurance and self-insurance instruments in an entirely satisfactory way. By ignoring these sources of imperfect insurance, the catastrophic payments measure overstates the impact of out-of-pocket medical expenses on living standards, while the impoverishment measure does not credibly identify poverty caused by them. It is better thought of as a correction to the measurement of poverty.

Article

The Rationale for Interventions to Foster Child Development  

Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández

Socioeconomic gradients in health, cognitive, and socioemotional skills start at a very early age. Well-designed policy interventions in the early years can have a great impact in closing these gaps. Advancing this line of research requires a thorough understanding of how households make human capital investment decisions on behalf of their children, what their information set is, and how the market, the environment, and government policies affect them. A framework for this research should describe how children’s skills evolve and how parents make choices about the inputs that model child development, as well as the rationale for government interventions, including both efficiency and equity considerations.

Article

The Economics of Smoking Prevention  

Philip DeCicca, Donald S. Kenkel, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Erik Nesson

Smoking prevention has been a key component of health policy in developed nations for over half a century. Public policies to reduce the physical harm attributed to cigarette smoking, both externally and to the smoker, include cigarette taxation, smoking bans, and anti-smoking campaigns, among other publicly conceived strategies to reduce smoking initiation among the young and increase smoking cessation among current smokers. Despite the policy intensity of the past two decades, there remains debate regarding whether, and to what extent, the observed reductions in smoking are due to such policies. Indeed, while smoking rates in developed countries have fallen substantially over the past half century, it is difficult to separate secular trends toward greater investment in health from actual policy impacts. In other words, smoking rates might have declined in the absence of these anti-smoking policies, consistent with trends toward other healthy behaviors. These trends also may reflect longer-run responses to policies enacted many years ago, which also poses challenges for identification of causal policy effects. While smoking rates fell dramatically over this period, the gradient in smoking prevalence has become tilted toward lower socioeconomic status (SES) individuals. That is, cigarette smoking exhibited a relatively flat SES gradient 50 years ago, but today that gradient is much steeper: relatively less-educated and lower-income individuals are many times more likely to be cigarette smokers than their more highly educated and higher-income counterparts. Over time, consumers also have become less price-responsive, which has rendered cigarette taxation a less effective policy tool with which to reduce smoking. The emergence of tax avoidance strategies such as casual cigarette smuggling (e.g., cross-tax border purchasing) and purchasing from tax-free outlets (e.g., Native reservations in Canada and the United States) have likely contributed to reduced price sensitivity. Such behaviors have been of particular interest in the last decade as cigarette taxation has roughly doubled cigarette prices in many developed nations, creating often large incentives to avoid taxation for those who continue to smoke. Perhaps due to the perception that traditional policy has been ineffective, recent anti-smoking policy has focused more on the direct regulation of cigarettes and smoking behavior. The main non-price-based policy has been the rise of smoke-free air laws, which restrict smoking behavior in workplaces, restaurants, and bars. These regulations can reduce smoking prevalence and exposure to secondhand smoke among nonsmokers. However, they may also shift the location of smoking in ways that increase secondhand smoke exposure, particularly among children. Other non-tax regulations focus on the packaging (e.g., the movement towards plain packaging), advertising, and product attributes of cigarettes (e.g., nicotine content, cigarette flavor, etc.), and most are attempts to reduce smoking by making it less desirable to the actual or potential smoker. Perhaps not surprisingly, research in the economics of smoking prevention has followed these policy developments, though strong interest remains in both the evaluation of price- and non-price policies as well as any offsetting responses among smokers that may undermine the effectiveness of these regulations. While the past two decades have provided fertile ground for research in the economics of smoking, we expect this to continue, as governments search for more innovative and effective ways to reduce smoking.

Article

Health Insurance Plan Choice and Switching  

Joachim Winter and Amelie Wuppermann

Choice of health insurance plans has become a key element of many healthcare systems around the world along with a general expansion of patient choice under the label of “Consumer-Directed Healthcare.” Allowing consumers to choose their insurance plan was commonly associated with the aim of enhancing competition between insurers and thus to contribute to the efficient delivery of healthcare. However, the evidence is accruing that consumers have difficulties in making health insurance decisions in their best interest. For example, many consumers choose plans with which they spend more in terms of premiums and out-of-pocket costs than in other available options. This has consequences for the individual consumer’s budget as well as for the functioning of the insurance market. The literature puts forward several possible reasons for consumers’ difficulties in making health insurance choices in their best interest. First, consumers may not have a sufficient level of knowledge of insurance products; for example, they might not understand insurance terminology. Second, the environment or architecture in which consumers make their decision may be too complicated. Health insurance products vary in a large number of features that consumers have to evaluate when comparing options, introducing search or hassle costs. Third, consumers may be prone to psychological biases and employ decision-making heuristics that impede good choices. For example, they might choose the plan with the cheapest premium, ignoring other important plan features that determine total cost, such as copayments. There is also evidence that consumer education programs, simplification of the choice environment, or introducing nudges such as setting smart defaults facilitate consumer decision making. Despite recent progress in our understanding of consumer choices in health insurance markets, important challenges remain. Evidence-based healthcare policy should be based on an evaluation of whether different interventions aimed at facilitating consumer choices result in welfare improvements. Ultimately, this requires measuring consumer utility, an issue that is vividly debated in the literature. Furthermore, welfare calculations necessitate an understanding of how interventions will affect the supply of health insurance, including supply reactions to changes in demand. This depends on the specific regulatory setting and characteristics of the specific market.

Article

The Effects of Prenatal Care on Birth Outcomes: Reconciling a Messy Literature  

Hope Corman, Dhaval Dave, and Nancy E. Reichman

Prenatal care, one of the most frequently used forms of healthcare in the United States, involves a series of encounters during the gestational period, educates women about pregnancy, monitors existing medical conditions, tests for gestational health conditions, and refers expectant mothers to services such as support groups and social services. However, an increasingly methodologically rigorous literature suggests that the effects of prenatal care timing and quantity on birth outcomes, particularly low birthweight, are modest at the population level. A review and synthesis of the literature suggests that the questions typically being asked may be too narrow and that more attention should be paid to the characterization of infant health, characterization of the content and quality of prenatal care, potential heterogeneous effects, potential indirect effects on health behaviors that may benefit offspring, potential long-term effects, potential spillover effects (i.e., on mothers and their subsequent children), effects of preconceptional and lifetime care, and intergenerational effects.

Article

Changes in Hospital Financing and Organization and Their Impact on Hospital Performance  

Jonas Schreyögg

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.

Article

The Evolution of Mental Health Policy and Economics  

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.

Article

Time Preferences for Health  

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?

Article

The Economics of Families and Health  

Susan Averett and Jennifer Kohn

An individual’s health is produced in large part by family investments that start before birth and continue to the end of life. The health of an individual is intertwined with practically every economic decision including education, marriage, fertility, labor market, and investments. These outcomes in turn affect income and wealth and hence have implications for intergenerational transfer of economic advantage or disadvantage. A rich body of theoretical and empirical work considers the role of the family in health production over the life cycle and the role of health in household economic decisions. This literature starts by considering family inputs regarding health at birth, then moves through adolescence and midlife, where relationship decisions affect health. After midlife, health, particularly the health of family members, becomes an input into retirement and investment decisions. The literature on family and health showcases economists’ skills in modeling complex family dynamics, deriving theoretical predictions, and using clever econometric strategies to identify causal effects.

Article

Famines, Hunger, and Later-Life Health  

Gerard J. van den Berg and Maarten Lindeboom

Modern-day famines are caused by unusual impediments or interventions in society, effectively imposing severe market restrictions and preventing the free movement of people and goods. Long-run health effects of exposure to famine are commonly studied to obtain insights into the long-run effects of malnutrition at early ages. This line of research has faced major methodological and data challenges. Recent research in various disciplines, such as economics, epidemiology, and demography, has made great progress in dealing with these issues. Malnutrition around birth affects a range of later-life individual outcomes, including health, educational, and economic outcomes.

Article

Health Policy and Finance Challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Economic Perspective  

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.

Article

The Economics of End-of-Life Spending  

Hans Olav Melberg

End-of-life spending is commonly defined as all health costs in the 12 months before death. Typically, the costs represent about 10% of all health expenses in many countries, and there is a large debate about the effectiveness of the spending and whether it should be increased or decreased. Assuming that health spending is effective in improving health, and using a wide definition of benefits from end-of-life spending, several economists have argued for increased spending in the last years of life. Others remain skeptical about the effectiveness of such spending based on both experimental evidence and the observation that geographic within-country variations in spending are not correlated with variations in mortality.

Article

Challenges in Financing Universal Health Coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa  

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

Social Interactions in Health Behaviors and Conditions  

Ana Balsa and Carlos Díaz

Health behaviors are a major source of morbidity and mortality in the developed and much of the developing world. The social nature of many of these behaviors, such as eating or using alcohol, and the normative connotations that accompany others (i.e., sexual behavior, illegal drug use) make them quite susceptible to peer influence. This chapter assesses the role of social interactions in the determination of health behaviors. It highlights the methodological progress of the past two decades in addressing the multiple challenges inherent in the estimation of peer effects, and notes methodological issues that still need to be confronted. A comprehensive review of the economics empirical literature—mostly for developed countries—shows strong and robust peer effects across a wide set of health behaviors, including alcohol use, body weight, food intake, body fitness, teen pregnancy, and sexual behaviors. The evidence is mixed when assessing tobacco use, illicit drug use, and mental health. The article also explores the as yet incipient literature on the mechanisms behind peer influence and on new developments in the study of social networks that are shedding light on the dynamics of social influence. There is suggestive evidence that social norms and social conformism lie behind peer effects in substance use, obesity, and teen pregnancy, while social learning has been pointed out as a channel behind fertility decisions, mental health utilization, and uptake of medication. Future research needs to deepen the understanding of the mechanisms behind peer influence in health behaviors in order to design more targeted welfare-enhancing policies.

Article

Economic Incentives, Risk Behaviors, and HIV  

Sandra G. Sosa-Rubí and Omar Galárraga

Conditional economic incentives are a theoretically grounded approach for eliciting behavior change. The rationale stems from present-biased preferences, by which individuals attach greater value to benefits in the present and heavily discount long-term health. A growing literature documents the use of economic incentives in the HIV field. Small and frequent conditional economic incentives offered to vulnerable populations can contribute to behavior change. Economic incentives accompanied with other strategies can help overcome obstacles to access health services and in general seem to improve linkage to HIV care, prevention interventions, and adherence to HIV treatment. Future identification of promising combinations of intervention components, modalities, and strategies may yield maximum impact.

Article

Health and Economic Growth  

David E. Bloom, Michael Kuhn, and Klaus Prettner

The strong observable correlation between health and economic growth is crucial for economic development and sustained well-being, but the underlying causality and mechanisms are difficult to conceptualize. Three issues are of central concern. First, assessing and disentangling causality between health and economic growth are empirically challenging. Second, the relation between health and economic growth changes over the process of economic development. In less developed countries, poor health often reduces labor force participation, particularly among women, and deters investments in education such that fertility stays high and the economy remains trapped in a stagnation equilibrium. By contrast, in more developed countries, health investments primarily lead to rising longevity, which may not significantly affect labor force participation and workforce productivity. Third, different dimensions of health (mortality vs. morbidity, children’s and women’s health, and health at older ages) relate to different economic effects. By changing the duration and riskiness of the life course, mortality affects individual investment choices, whereas morbidity relates more directly to work productivity and education. Children’s health affects their education and has long-lasting implications for labor force participation and productivity later in life. Women’s health is associated with substantial intergenerational spillover effects and influences women’s empowerment and fertility decisions. Finally, health at older ages has implications for retirement and care.