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Article

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtney Van Houtven, Fiona Carmichael, Josephine Jacobs, and Peter C. Coyte

Across the globe, the most common means of supporting older disabled adults in their homes is through “informal care.” An informal carer is a family member or friend, including children or adults, who help another person because of their illness, frailty, or disability. There is a rich economics literature on the direct benefits of caregiving, including allowing the care recipient to remain at home for longer than if there was no informal care provided. There is also a growing literature outlining the associated costs of care provision. Although informal care helps individuals with disabilities to remain at home and is rewarding to many carers, there are often negative effects such as depression and lost labor market earnings that may offset some of these rewards. Economists have taken several approaches to quantify the net societal benefit of informal care that consider the degree of choice in caregiving decisions and all direct and indirect benefits and costs of informal care.

Article

José Luis Pinto-Prades, Arthur Attema, and Fernando Ignacio Sánchez-Martínez

Quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) are one of the main health outcomes measures used to make health policy decisions. It is assumed that the objective of policymakers is to maximize QALYs. Since the QALY weighs life years according to their health-related quality of life, it is necessary to calculate those weights (also called utilities) in order to estimate the number of QALYs produced by a medical treatment. The methodology most commonly used to estimate utilities is to present standard gamble (SG) or time trade-off (TTO) questions to a representative sample of the general population. It is assumed that, in this way, utilities reflect public preferences. Two different assumptions should hold for utilities to be a valid representation of public preferences. One is that the standard (linear) QALY model has to be a good model of how subjects value health. The second is that subjects should have consistent preferences over health states. Based on the main assumptions of the popular linear QALY model, most of those assumptions do not hold. A modification of the linear model can be a tractable improvement. This suggests that utilities elicited under the assumption that the linear QALY model holds may be biased. In addition, the second assumption, namely that subjects have consistent preferences that are estimated by asking SG or TTO questions, does not seem to hold. Subjects are sensitive to features of the elicitation process (like the order of questions or the type of task) that should not matter in order to estimate utilities. The evidence suggests that questions (TTO, SG) that researchers ask members of the general population produce response patterns that do not agree with the assumption that subjects have well-defined preferences when researchers ask them to estimate the value of health states. Two approaches can deal with this problem. One is based on the assumption that subjects have true but biased preferences. True preferences can be recovered from biased ones. This approach is valid as long as the theory used to debias is correct. The second approach is based on the idea that preferences are imprecise. In practice, national bodies use utilities elicited using TTO or SG under the assumptions that the linear QALY model is a good enough representation of public preferences and that subjects’ responses to preference elicitation methods are coherent.

Article

Life-cycle choices and outcomes over financial (e.g., savings, portfolio, work) and health-related variables (e.g., medical spending, habits, sickness, and mortality) are complex and intertwined. Indeed, labor/leisure choices can both affect and be conditioned by health outcomes, precautionary savings is determined by exposure to sickness and longevity risks, where the latter can both be altered through preventive medical and leisure decisions. Moreover, inevitable aging induces changes in the incentives and in the constraints for investing in one’s own health and saving resources for old age. Understanding these pathways poses numerous challenges for economic models. The life-cycle data is indicative of continuous declines in health statuses and associated increases in exposure to morbidity, medical expenses, and mortality risks, with accelerating post-retirement dynamics. Theory suggests that risk-averse and forward-looking agents should rely on available instruments to insure against these risks. Indeed, market- and state-provided health insurance (e.g., Medicare) cover curative medical expenses. High end-of-life home and nursing-home expenses can be hedged through privately or publicly provided (e.g., Medicaid) long-term care insurance. The risk of outliving one’s financial resources can be hedged through annuities. The risk of not living long enough can be insured through life insurance. In practice, however, the recourse to these hedging instruments remains less than predicted by theory. Slow-observed wealth drawdown after retirement is unexplained by bequest motives and suggests precautionary motives against health-related expenses. The excessive reliance on public pension (e.g., Social Security) and the post-retirement drop in consumption not related to work or health are both indicative of insufficient financial preparedness and run counter to consumption smoothing objectives. Moreover, the capacity to self-insure through preventive care and healthy habits is limited when aging is factored in. In conclusion, the observed health and financial life-cycle dynamics remain challenging for economic theory.

Article

Gregory Colman, Dhaval Dave, and Otto Lenhart

Health insurance depends on labor market activity more in the U.S. than in any other high-income country. A majority of the population are insured through an employer (known as employer-sponsored insurance or ESI), benefiting from the risk pooling and economies of scale available to group insurance plans. Some workers may therefore be reluctant to leave a job for fear of losing such low-cost insurance, a tendency known as “job lock,” or may switch jobs or work more hours merely to obtain it, known as “job push.” Others obtain insurance through government programs for which eligibility depends on income. They too may adapt their work effort to remain eligible for insurance. Those without access to ESI or who are too young or earn too much to qualify for public coverage (Medicare and Medicaid) can buy insurance only in the individual or nongroup market, where prices are high and variable. Most studies using data from before the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 support the prediction that ESI reduced job mobility, labor-force participation, retirement, and self-employment prior to the ACA, but find little effect on the labor supply of public insurance. The ACA profoundly changed the health insurance market in the U.S., removing restrictions on obtaining insurance from new employers or on the individual market and expanding Medicaid eligibility to previously ineligible adults. Research on the ACA, however, has not found substantial labor supply effects. These results may reflect that the reforms to the individual market mainly affected those who were previously uninsured rather than workers with ESI, that the theoretical labor market effects of expansions in public coverage are ambiguous, and that the effect would be found only among the relatively small number on the fringes of eligibility.