Evaluating Cost-effectiveness of Interventions That Affect Fertility and Childbearing: How Health Effects Are Measured Matters

BACKGROUND: Current guidelines for economic evaluations of health interventions define relevant outcomes as those accruing to individuals receiving interventions. Little consensus exists on counting health impacts on current and future fertility and childbearing. Our objective was to characterize current practices for counting such health outcomes.
METHODS: We developed a framework characterizing health interventions with direct and/or indirect effects on fertility and childbearing and how such outcomes are reported. We identified interventions spanning the framework and performed a targeted literature review for economic evaluations of these interventions. For each article, we characterized how the potential health outcomes from each intervention were considered, focusing on quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) associated with fertility and childbearing.
RESULTS: We reviewed 108 studies, identifying 7 themes: 1) Studies were heterogeneous in reporting outcomes. 2) Studies often selected outcomes for inclusion that tend to bias toward finding the intervention to be cost-effective. 3) Studies often avoided the challenges of assigning QALYs for pregnancy and fertility by instead considering cost per intermediate outcome. 4) Even for the same intervention, studies took heterogeneous approaches to outcome evaluation. 5) Studies used multiple, competing rationales for whether and how to include fertility-related QALYs and whose QALYs to include. 6) Studies examining interventions with indirect effects on fertility typically ignored such QALYs. 7) Even recent studies had these shortcomings. Limitations include that the review was targeted rather than systematic.
CONCLUSIONS: Economic evaluations inconsistently consider QALYs from current and future fertility and childbearing in ways that frequently appear biased toward the interventions considered. As the Panel on Cost-Effectiveness in Health and Medicine updates its guidelines, making the practice of cost-effectiveness analysis more consistent is a priority. Our study contributes to harmonizing methods in this respect.