Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Piketty's nuances

After selling 1.5 million books, now Piketty says:
The way in which I perceive the relationship between r>g and inequality is often not well captured in the discussion that has surrounded my book. For example, I do not view r>g as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the twentieth century, or for forecasting the path of inequality in the twenty-first century. Institutional changes and political shocks— which to a large extent can be viewed as endogenous to the inequality and development process itself—played a major role in the past, and it will probably be the same in the future.
His obsession with taxation remains:
In my book, I propose a simple rule of thumb to think about optimal wealth tax rates. Namely, one should adapt the tax ratesto the observed speed at which the different wealth groups are rising over time.
One of the main conclusions of my research is indeed that there is substantial uncertainty about how far income and wealth inequality might rise in the twenty-first century, and that we need more financial transparency and better information about income and wealth dynamics, so that we can adapt our policies and institutions to a changing environment. This might require better international fiscal coordination, which is difficult but by no means impossible.
Why is he focusing strictly on taxation, while admitting that institutional changes and political shocks play a major role?

So what?. Maybe the inequality explanation lies on housing wealth... and not on the return on capital. Anyway, the profitability from the book -for Piketty- is huge, and the solutions remain uncertain.

PS: WSJ, The economist,

PS. From the last Sistema Nacional de Salud report p.170:
"Extremadura con 9,5% de gasto sanitario público sobre el PIB, junto con Cantabria con 8,3% y Murcia con 7,9% fueron las comunidades autónomas que presentaron en el año 2012 el porcentaje más elevado. En el extremo opuesto se encontraba Madrid con el 4,1% de gasto sanitario público sobre el PIB y Cataluña con 4,9."
These are facts, not opinions. Now you can understand why we want to leave from this state soon,  double of public budget over GDP under the same taxation system!. Unacceptable. Good bye!

Monday, March 30, 2015

The tragedy of commonsense morality

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

The suggestion by Joshua Green in his book "Moral Tribes" is to put our gut reactions aside, and rely on our utilitarian moral compass for direction. There are two fundamental moral problems. Me versus Us is the basic problem of cooperation. Our brains solve this problem primarily with emotion and thanks to these automatic settings, we succeed in this controversy. However complex moral problems are about the latter, Us versus Them,-between tribes, not within tribes-.

The morality concept:
 Morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation
The fact:
Two moral tragedies threaten human well-being. The original tragedy is the Tragedy of the Commons. This is a tragedy of selfishness, a failure of individuals to put Us ahead of Me. Morality is nature’s solution to this problem. The new tragedy, the modern tragedy, is the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, the problem of life on the new pastures. Here morality is undoubtedly part of the solution, but it’s also part of the problem. In the modern tragedy, the very same moral thinking that enables cooperation within groups undermines cooperation between groups. Within each tribe, the herders of the new pastures are bound together by their moral ideals. But the tribes themselves are divided by their moral ideals. This is unfortunate, but it should come as no surprise, given the conclusion of the last section: Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation. On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition. In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.
This is a very interesting and intricate book that requires rereading. There are strong implications for health economics. His recommendations, to be discussed (some day), are the following ones:

The six rules for modern herders:
  • 1. In the face of moral controversy, consult but do not trust, your instincts.
  • 2. Rights are not for making arguments; they are for ending arguments
  • 3. Focus on the facts and make others do the same
  • 4. Beware of biased fairness
  • 5. Use common currency
  • 6. Give


PS. You may apply his arguments to the current political nightmare, and it fits perfectly.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The identified person bias




The concept:
The identified person bias: A greater inclination to assist (and avoid harming) persons and groups identified as those at high risk of great harm than to assist (and avoid harming) persons and groups who will suffer (or already suffer) similar harm but are not identified (as yet).
 The issues:
  1. When precisely does the identified person bias arise? And what exactly does it consist in? For example, is it simply a matter of a very human response to the vivid human faces of people with personal stories, in the hospital ward or on TV screens? Is it something that arises only when the risks are known, only under strict  uncertainty, or regardless of how much we can specify the risk? Does that bias arise only when few victims are involved?
  2. What, if anything, might justify giving priority to identified persons at risk?
  3. What would be the practical implications for law, public health, medicine, and the environment of accepting the priority given to identified persons, or of forsaking it—if we could successfully do so?
The book, a must read:




Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Don't think of privatization

Let's do a little thought experiment today.
Close your eyes. Imagine a privatized healthcare consortium as vividly as you can. It is clear! Is it? There are private owners. Or seems to be some officials geting dividends?

Now, I want you to NOT think about privatization. Think of anything else but privatisation. Try it for a few minutes.

What are you thinking of? How many times did the privatization issue cross your mind? Quite a few times, right?

Now, close your eyes again and try to think about what you did for today? Who you met? Where you went? Anything interesting happened when you were traveling? What did you eat for breakfast/lunch? Try it for a few minutes.

How many times did you think of privatization? None? Maybe once or twice especially since I asked this question?
This is an exercise that shows that suppressing your thoughts in your mind doesn't really work. When we try not to think about something and try to suppress it, our minds keep going back to the same thoughts. This is a well known experiment from Wegner et al. (Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thoughts suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13). As you know, I could also refer to Lakoff mental frames and its: Don't think of an elephant for different evolutive and modern cognitive perspective, but I've done it before.
If you combine deception -about the concept of privatization- and the difficulty of suppressing your thoughts, you'll get the current health policy mess. Distraction is a strategic move that has alleged political profits. For sure, the whole population only receive the losses from such strategy. We have been installed in this paradigm for many years: the privatization devil is here and there, although there is no shareholder getting any dividend. Fortunately, the world stands beyond spaguetti western films. Ownership has impact on efficiency but depends on the context, sometimes public incentives prevail over private ones, and sometimes is the opposite.
If all these sounds weird to you, have a look at our last Parliament resolution and you'll find the astonishing agreement of all parties against the current ruling party on one issue that doesn't exists: a public consortium privatised!!!. If it is public, as it is, can't be private if the owner is the government, as it is. Disappointing, shameful.
I'm really sad that in my country public representatives play with fire in such a way. I just want to say today, that I'm available for those deputies interested in a free private lecture on organizational economics, on what ownership is and what it means for efficiency. Just give me a call or send me an email.

A relaxing cup of café con leche

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Genetic testing: a knotty problem

Food and Drug Administration. Optimizing FDA's regulatory oversight of next generation sequencing diagnostic tests — preliminary discussion paper

Cutting the Gordian Helix — Regulating Genomic Testing in the Era of Precision Medicine

"Scientific progress alone won't guarantee that the public reaps the full benefits of precision medicine, an achievement that will also require advancing the nation's regulatory frameworks"
This strong statement reflects a wider concern on the implementation of precision medicine or stratified medicine. I have commented before on this issue, the NEJM article of this week clarifies the last attempt by FDA to shed some light and a specific approach to disentangle the current challenges. FDA has submitted a document for comments just to start a new era of regulation in health, a "collaborative framework" for creating reliable databases of genes and genetic variants underlying disease, and provide a "safe harbor" for the interpretation of genomic tests.
This is exactly the right direction. As long as, information is a public good, genetic testing -clinical validity and utility- should be provided only by the regulator.  Professionals and citizens need to trust in precision medicine and avoid snake-oil sellers.
Having said that, today I'm more concerned than yesterday on how our government is delaying to start such effort. Today is one more day lost.

Dufy at Thyssen Museum right now

PS. Somebody should think twice about the style of health policy debates in public TV.

Monday, March 9, 2015

In favour of consumer protection

Can Consumers Make Affordable Care Affordable? The Value of Choice Architecture

Healthcare.gov 3.0 — Behavioral Economics and Insurance Exchanges

Recently Google has entered in the insurance comparisons market. Right now is available for car insurance and health insurance could be the next step. This business model changes the search costs and has strong impact over current sales channels. Understanding the salient features of health coverage for any citizen, should require that government regulates the right conditions for consumer protection. If insurancee companies pay the comparison site, as google says, is there any change on how information is shown according to the amount paid?. Have a look at the Peter Ubel et al. article at NEJM or at the PLOS one, and you'll be convinced that the potential for manipulation is huge.
Therefore, if this is so, there is a role for protecting consumers against well designed biases in comparison sites.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Practice makes perfect

Comparing hospital performance within and across countries: an illustrative study of coronary artery bypass graft surgery in England and Spain

My concern over variations in clinical practice relies on a specific issue. Once you've describe it, you need to understand its implications. Thus, somebody should assess whether variations cause poor health outcomes. Before starting such a task, somebody has to measure relative performance, and this is precisely what a recent article in EJPH does on CABG surgery in England and Spain. I would like to highlight this statement:
In this article, we use patient-level data within and between two countries to assess the added value of pooling administrative data across countries and to explore hypotheses that may explain differences such as those reported in cardiac care. These may be driven by a small number of hospitals with unacceptably high mortality rates (perhaps due to coding differences or under-performance). Otherwise, country differences in outcomes may be explained by the concentration of services into specialist centres with differences in clinical facilities and staff experience, as reflected by hospital volume of surgery. These hypotheses cannot be tested adequately using within-country data or national aggregates, but lessons may potentially be learned from hospital-level comparisons across countries using comprehensive administrative data.
If we focus on performance, national aggregates confound. And this is focus of the article:
Unadjusted mortality rate following CABG surgery demonstrates a considerable difference between hospitals (particularly in Spain) and between countries (average mortality is 2.3% in England, 5.0% in Spain)
After adjusnting and pooling data from both countries, then results look different:
First, the hospitals’ performance contrasts substantially with the traditional within-country findings. Nine Spanish hospitals are identified as ‘alarms’ in the pooled assessment compared with five in the country-specific assessment. Thirteen Spanish hospitals are additionally identified as ‘alerts’ that were within the normal range when considering Spain alone. Four English hospitals are now identified as alerts and none is assigned alarm status. Second, there is a clear separation in the number of expected deaths between English and Spanish hospitals, reflecting differences in volume across countries. The median hospital surgical volume in Spain is 154 patients a year, compared with 690 in England, and the highest volume hospital in Spain treated 337 patients in 1 year, whereas the lowest volume hospital in England treated 327. Third, despite the large overall between-country difference, the vast majority of hospitals in England and around a third of those in Spain lie within or below the 95% funnel and are largely comparable in terms of their SMR.
This is an excellent explanation of "practice makes perfect" argument. And, if this were the only factor, there is a compelling reason to concentrate CABG surgery in certain hospitals and close services in others. We know that some concrete hospitals may have high adjusted mortality rates and deserve a concrete action. Urgent decision is needed, just to reduce mortality ratio by half.

PS. The whole issue on variations in EJPH represents a milestone in health services research. Congratulations to the authors and the ECHO project.

PS. GCS blog on the same topic.

PS. New book available: The Triple Aim for the future of health care by Núria Mas and Wendy Wisbaum

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An illusionary free lunch

Some months ago I started a series of posts under the title "Fasten seat belts". The topic is well known, how new skyrocketing drug prices are distorting budgets and access. Yesterday we got the final resolution. Fasten you seat belt, this is the moment of truth: The government has decided that hepatitis C patients under specific conditions will get treatment. And once he has decided coverage, he concludes that he will not pay the bill. Somebody else will have to do it, autonomous communities governments. Free lunchs exists in Sepharad!
This is a complete mess and it is only the begining, new drugs are knocking at the door. For catalans, this foreign decision represents 470 m €, an additional deficit for the 2015 budget of 5.7%!!! (if all expenditure were charged in one year). Does this make any sense?. Of course Basque country is not included in such arrangements...
There is an objective need to disconnect, the time is getting closer. Things couldn't have been done worse.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Beyond the genome

FORUM Epigenomics. Roadmap for regulation. Diseases mapped

My suggestion for today. Have a look at the papers in Nature on epigenome, and at the following figure:

The Roadmap Epigenomics Project has produced reference epigenomes that provide information on key functional elements controlling gene expression in 127 human tissues and cell types, and encompassing embryonic and adult tissues, from healthy individuals and those with disease. a, Many of the adult tissues investigated were broken down by cell type or region — blood into several types of immune cell, for instance, and the brain into regions including the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Tissue samples and cells were subjected to a range of epigenomic analyses, along with genome sequencing and genome-wide association studies (GWAS). b, Embryonic stem (ES) cells, which are taken from the embryo at the 'blastocyst' stage and can give rise to almost every cell type in the body, were used to analyse, for example, the differentiation of stem cells into different neuronal lineages. The ES-cell-derived cell lines underwent the same epigenomic analyses as the tissue samples.

The key article, here.Tissues and cell types profiled:


For decades, biomedical science has focused on ways of identifying the genes that contribute to a particular trait, or phenotype. Approaches such as genome-wide association studies (GWAS) identify locations in thhuman genome at which variations in DNA sequence are linked to specific phenotypes, but if the variant is located in a region of DNA that does not encode a protein, such studies rarely provide insights into the regulatory mechanisms underlying the association. In these cases, comprehensive epigenomic analyses can provide the missing link between genomic variation and cellular phenotype.

If this is so, why are governments reluctant to introduce a ban on genetic tests with spurious associations between genome and diseases?




PS. Manel Esteller in DM.