Differential Discounting in the Economic Evaluation of Healthcare Programs

Cost Eff Resour Alloc. 2019 Dec 17;17:29. doi: 10.1186/s12962-019-0196-1. eCollection 2019.

Abstract

Background: The question of appropriate discount rates in health economic evaluations has been a point of continuous scientific debate. Today, it is widely accepted that, under certain conditions regarding the social objective of the healthcare decision maker and the fixity of the budget for healthcare, a lower discount rate for health gains than for costs is justified if the consumption value of health is increasing over time. To date, however, there is neither empirical evidence nor a strong theoretical a priori supporting this assumption. Given this lack of evidence, we offer an additional approach to check the appropriateness of differential discounting.

Methods: Our approach is based on a two-goods extension of Ramsey's optimal growth model which allows accounting for changing relative values of goods explicitly. Assuming a constant elasticity of substitution (CES) utility function, the growth rate of the consumption value of health depends on three variables: the growth rate of consumption, the growth rate of health, and the income elasticity of the willingness to pay for health. Based on a review of the empirical literature on the monetary value of health, we apply the approach to obtain an empirical value of the growth rate of the consumption value of health in Germany.

Results: The empirical literature suggests that the income elasticity of the willingness to pay for health is probably not larger but rather smaller than 1 and probably not smaller but rather larger than 0.2. Combining this finding with reasonable values of the annual growth rates in consumption (1.5-1.6%) and health (0.1%) suggests, for Germany, an annual growth rate of the consumption value of health between 0.3 and 1.5%.

Conclusion: In the light of a two-goods extension of Ramsey's optimal growth model, the available empirical evidence makes the case for a growing consumption value of health. Therefore, the current German practice of applying the same discount rate to costs and health gains introduces a systematic bias against healthcare technologies with upfront costs and long-term health effects. Differential discounting with a lower rate for health effects appears to be a more appropriate discounting model.

Keywords: Differential discounting; Economic evaluation; Healthcare; Ramsey’s optimal growth model; Social discount rate.