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Article

Gabriella Conti, Giacomo Mason, and Stavros Poupakis

Building on early animal studies, 20th-century researchers increasingly explored the fact that early events—ranging from conception to childhood—affect a child’s health trajectory in the long-term. By the 21st century, a wide body of research had emerged, incorporating the original fetal origins hypothesis into the developmental origins of health and disease. Evidence from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries suggests that health inequalities are strongly correlated with many dimensions of socioeconomic status, such as educational attainment, and that they tend to increase with age and carry stark intergenerational implications. Different economic theories have been developed to rationalize this evidence, with an overarching comprehensive framework still lacking. Existing models widely rely on human capital theory, which has given rise to separate dynamic models of adult and child health capital within a production function framework. A large body of empirical evidence has also found support for the developmental origins of inequalities in health. On the one hand, studies exploiting quasi-random exposure to adverse events have shown long-term physical and mental health impacts of exposure to early shocks, including pandemics or maternal illness, famine, malnutrition, stress, vitamin deficiencies, maltreatment, pollution, and economic recessions. On the other hand, studies from the 20th century have shown that early interventions of various content and delivery formats improve life course health. Further, given that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups show the greatest gains, such measures can potentially reduce health inequalities. However, studies of long-term impacts as well as the mechanisms via which shocks or policies affect health, and the dynamic interaction among them, are still lacking. Mapping the complexities of those early event dynamics is an important avenue for future research.

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

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

Florence Jusot and Sandy Tubeuf

Recent developments in the analysis of inequality in health and healthcare have turned their interest into an explicit normative understanding of the sources of inequalities that calls upon the concept of equality of opportunity. According to this concept, some sources of inequality are more objectionable than others and could represent priorities for policies aiming to reduce inequality in healthcare use, access, or health status. Equality of opportunity draws a distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” sources of inequality. While legitimate sources of differences can be attributed to the consequences of individual effort (i.e. determinants within the individual’s control), illegitimate sources of differences are related to circumstances (i.e. determinants beyond the individual’s responsibility). The study of inequality of opportunity is rooted in social justice research, and the last decade has seen a rapid growth in empirical work using this literature at the core of its approach in both developed and developing countries. Empirical research on inequality of opportunity in health and healthcare is mainly driven by data availability. Most studies in adult populations are based on data from European countries, especially from the UK, while studies analyzing inequalities of opportunity among children are usually based on data from low- or middle-income countries and focus on children under five years old. Regarding the choice of circumstances, most studies have considered social background to be an illegitimate source of inequality in health and healthcare. Geographical dimensions have also been taken into account, but to a lesser extent, and more frequently in studies focusing on children or those based on data from countries outside Europe. Regarding effort variables or legitimate sources of health inequality, there is wide use of smoking-related variables. Regardless of the population, health outcome, and circumstances considered, scholars have provided evidence of illegitimate inequality in health and healthcare. Studies on inequality of opportunity in healthcare are mainly found in children population; this emphasizes the need to tackle inequality as early as possible.

Article

Rosella Levaggi

The concept of soft budget constraint, describes a situation where a decision-maker finds it impossible to keep an agent to a fixed budget. In healthcare it may refer to a (nonprofit) hospital that overspends, or to a lower government level that does not balance its accounts. The existence of a soft budget constraint may represent an optimal policy from the regulator point of view only in specific settings. In general, its presence may allow for strategic behavior that changes considerably its nature and its desirability. In this article, soft budget constraint will be analyzed along two lines: from a market perspective and from a fiscal federalism perspective. The creation of an internal market for healthcare has made hospitals with different objectives and constraints compete together. The literature does not agree on the effects of competition on healthcare or on which type of organizations should compete. Public hospitals are often seen as less efficient providers, but they are also intrinsically motivated and/or altruistic. Competition for quality in a market where costs are sunk and competitors have asymmetric objectives may produce regulatory failures; for this reason, it might be optimal to implement soft budget constraint rules to public hospitals even at the risk of perverse effects. Several authors have attempted to estimate the presence of soft budget constraint, showing that they derive from different strategic behaviors and lead to quite different outcomes. The reforms that have reshaped public healthcare systems across Europe have often been accompanied by a process of devolution; in some countries it has often been accompanied by widespread soft budget constraint policies. Medicaid expenditure in the United States is becoming a serious concern for the Federal Government and the evidence from other states is not reassuring. Several explanations have been proposed: (a) local governments may use spillovers to induce neighbors to pay for their local public goods; (b) size matters: if the local authority is sufficiently big, the center will bail it out; equalization grants and fiscal competition may be responsible for the rise of soft budget constraint policies. Soft budget policies may also derive from strategic agreements among lower tiers, or as a consequence of fiscal imbalances. In this context the optimal use of soft budget constraint as a policy instrument may not be desirable.

Article

Norman Bannenberg, Martin Karlsson, and Hendrik Schmitz

Long-term care (LTC) is arguably the sector of the economy that is most sensitive to population aging: its recipients are typically older than 80 years whereas most care providers are of working age. Thus, a number of ongoing societal trends interact in the determination of market outcomes in the LTC sector: trends in longevity and healthy life expectancy interact with changing family structures and norms in shaping the need for services. The supply side is additionally affected by changes in employment patterns, in particular regarding the transition into retirement, as well as by cross-regional imbalances in demographic and economic conditions. The economic literature on long-term care considers many of these issues, aims at understanding this steadily growing sector, and at guiding policy. Key economic studies on long-term care address determinants of the demand for long-term care, like disability and socio-economic status; the two most important providers: informal family caregivers and nursing homes; and the financing and funding of LTC.

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

Drug companies are profit-maximizing entities, and profit is, by definition, revenue less cost. Here we review the impact of government policies that affect sales revenues earned on newly developed drugs and the impact of policies that affect the cost of drug development. The former policies include intellectual property rights, drug price controls, and the extension of public drug coverage to previously underinsured groups. The latter policies include regulations governing drug safety and efficacy, R&D tax credits, publicly funded basic research, and public funding for open drug discovery consortia. The latter policy, public funding of research consortia that seek to better understand the cellular pathways through which new drugs can ameliorate disease, appears very promising. In particular, a better understanding of human pathophysiology may be able to address the high failure rate of drugs undergoing clinical testing. Policies that expand market size by extending drug insurance to previously underinsured groups also appear to be effective at increasing drug R&D. Expansions of pharmaceutical intellectual property rights seem to be less effective, given the countervailing monopsony power of large public drug plans.

Article

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

Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández

A set of policies is at the center of the agenda on early childhood development: parenting programs, childcare regulation and subsidies, cash and in-kind transfers, and parental leave policies. Incentives are embedded in these policies, and households react to them differently. They also have varying effects on child development, both in developed and developing countries. We have learned much about the impact of these policies in the past 20 years. We know that parenting programs can enhance child development, that centre based care might increase female labor force participation and child development, that parental leave policies beyond three months don’t cause improvement in children outcomes, and that the effects of transfers depend much on their design. In this review, we focus on the incentives embedded in these policies, and how they interact with the context and decision makers to understand the heterogeneity of effects and the mechanisms through which these policies work. We conclude by identifying areas of future research.

Article

Elisa Tosetti, Rita Santos, Francesco Moscone, and Giuseppe Arbia

The spatial dimension of supply and demand factors is a very important feature of healthcare systems. Differences in health and behavior across individuals are due not only to personal characteristics but also to external forces, such as contextual factors, social interaction processes, and global health shocks. These factors are responsible for various forms of spatial patterns and correlation often observed in the data, which are desirable to include in health econometrics models. This article describes a set of exploratory techniques and econometric methods to visualize, summarize, test, and model spatial patterns of health economics phenomena, showing their scientific and policy power when addressing health economics issues characterized by a strong spatial dimension. Exploring and modeling the spatial dimension of the two-sided healthcare provision may help reduce inequalities in access to healthcare services and support policymakers in the design of financially sustainable healthcare systems.

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

In many countries of the world, consumers choose their health insurance coverage from a large menu of often complex options supplied by private insurance companies. Economic benefits of the wide choice of health insurance options depend on the extent to which the consumers are active, well informed, and sophisticated decision makers capable of choosing plans that are well-suited to their individual circumstances. There are many possible ways how consumers’ actual decision making in the health insurance domain can depart from the standard model of health insurance demand of a rational risk-averse consumer. For example, consumers can have inaccurate subjective beliefs about characteristics of alternative plans in their choice set or about the distribution of health expenditure risk because of cognitive or informational constraints; or they can prefer to rely on heuristics when the plan choice problem features a large number of options with complex cost-sharing design. The second decade of the 21st century has seen a burgeoning number of studies assessing the quality of consumer choices of health insurance, both in the lab and in the field, and financial and welfare consequences of poor choices in this context. These studies demonstrate that consumers often find it difficult to make efficient choices of private health insurance due to reasons such as inertia, misinformation, and the lack of basic insurance literacy. These findings challenge the conventional rationality assumptions of the standard economic model of insurance choice and call for policies that can enhance the quality of consumer choices in the health insurance domain.

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

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.