Measuring return on investment in health care

5q2a0821 Stanford Health Policy's Douglas K. Owens presents his influential economic modeling research about the need for routine HIV screening at the third annual Global Health Economics Consortium Colloquium at UCSF, Feb. 12, 2016. UCSF/Cindy Chew

What is the best way to measure returns on investments in health care?

Does the World Health Organization’s approach help developing countries allocate their limited health-care resources wisely?

What are the economic implications of the global rise in non-communicable diseases?

These are just a few of the global challenges taken up by health economics experts at the third annual Global Health Economics Consortium Colloquium at the University of California, San Francisco.

At the core of the conference is the growing field of health economics, and why cost-effectiveness analysis is fast becoming the underpinning of successful health policies.

Not only is the field expanding, so is the collaboration among researchers and faculty at Stanford Health Policy, UCSF Global Health Sciences, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, co-sponsors of the Feb. 12 event.

“It’s been great to see the meeting evolve from a show-and-tell to a platform where we can have nuanced discussions about the challenges and controversies in the field,” said Dhruv Kazi, an assistant professor of medicine at UCSF who helped organize and moderate the event.

Some 180 health policy experts, researchers and speakers representing 11 universities, six non-profit organizations and five for-profit outfits attended the daylong conference on the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

“By building bridges between our universities, we create a space where thought-leaders and students alike can engage in discussions to challenge working assumptions and also spearhead innovate strategies and solutions,” said James Kahn, a professor of health policy and epidemiology at UCSF and the director of the consortium.

The Consortium — known as GHECon — was awarded a five-year cooperative agreement of up to $8 million by the CDC to conduct economic modeling of disease prevention in five areas: HIV, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and school health.

ghecon attendees Taking a break during the third annual Global Health Economics Consortium Colloquium at UCSF on Feb. 13, 2016. Photo by UCSF/Cindy Chew.

As global economies remain turbulent, Kazi said, governments and donors have become increasingly cost-sensitive and want to better understand the societal returns they are getting for their investments in health.

“That enhances the influence of our work, but also increases the scrutiny it receives, creating an opportunity for the community to have an honest discussion about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” he said. “And that is precisely the platform GHECon sees itself becoming.”

Some of the tough challenges consortium members are undertaking:

  1. The World Health Organization recommends using per capita GDP as a benchmark for how much money countries should be willing to spend on health-care interventions. GHECon researchers have shown that this approach is problematic and does not always help countries allocate their limited health-care resources optimally.
  2. Economic evaluations have typically only considered health-care costs, overlooking the lost income of patients or caregivers during hospital stays. GHECon researchers are working on ways to value this lost productivity in an effort to estimate the true cost of a disease and, conversely, the benefit of its alleviation. 
  3. Cost-effectiveness evaluations traditionally are concerned with how efficiently health-care resources are utilized by asking questions like: How many lives can I save per million dollars invested? But society may care about other benefits that go beyond efficient use of resources, such as reducing disparities by helping the most vulnerable sections of society and alleviating poverty.

Mark Sculpher addresses GHECon 2016. Photo by UCSF/Cindy Chew

Mark Sculpher, one of the leading health economists in the world, gave the keynote address about his efforts in the UK to use cost-effectiveness analysis to inform decisions at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

He said there are two big challenges today: defining cost-effectiveness thresholds that are meaningful, and determining how policymakers, donors and payers make decisions when there are multiple criteria and perspectives.

“The realities of decision-making inevitably involve a whole host of considerations,” said Sculpher, who is director of the Program on Economics Evaluation and Health Technology Assessment at the University of York. “Ultimately it’s about what is this measure of benefit that we want to maximize — and how do we invest in it.”

Stanford Health Policy’s Douglas K. Owens, director of the Center for Health Policy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at the Department of Medicine, presented his influential economic modeling research about the need for routine HIV screening.

“We determined that HIV screening is cost-effective in virtually all health-care settings,” Owens told the audience, noting that the findings became policy at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national health policy organizations. It has become an example of how economic modeling can inform crucial policy decisions — and help save lives.

There were also robust panel discussions about the challenges of doing cost-effectiveness analysis in developing countries with limited resources; the difficult paths to universal health care; and how economics can help address disparities in health care and financial protection.

“The consortium is particularly valuable because it fosters collaborations among a broad group of global health experts,” Owens said.

Speakers and panelists at the third annual GHECon colloquium at UCSF, Feb. 12, 2016. Photo by UCSF/Cindy Chew