Comparative effectiveness research

Yet there has been no national-level, comprehensive review of the evidence for public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) practices. Recognizing this deficiency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine three years ago and asked them to convene a national panel of public health experts to review the evidence for emergency preparedness and response. The committee members included Stanford Health Policy Director Douglas K. Owens. The committee issued its findings July 14 with a report at a Zoom conference.

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Case Studies
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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert
Douglas K. Owens
et al.
Noa Ronkin
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The world’s population is aging at a faster rate and in larger cohorts than ever before. In countries like Japan that have low fertility rates and high life expectancy, population aging is a risk to social sustainability. Developing policies and healthcare infrastructure to support aging populations is now critical to the social, economic, and developmental wellbeing of all nations. As the COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly shown, accurate projections of future population health status are crucial for designing sustainable healthcare services and social security systems.

Such projections necessitate models that incorporate the diverse and dynamic associations between health, economic, and social conditions among older people. However, the currently available models – known as multistate transition microsimulation models – require high-quality panel data for calibration and meaningful estimates. Now a group of researchers, including APARC Deputy Director and Asia Health Policy Program Director Karen Eggleston, has developed an alternative method that relaxes this data requirement.

In a newly published paper in Health Economics, Eggleston and her colleagues describe their study that proposes a novel approach using more readily-available data in many countries, thus promising more accurate projections of the future health and functional status of elderly and aging populations. This alternative method uses cross‐sectional representative surveys to estimate multistate‐transition contingency tables applied to Japan's population. When combined with estimated comorbidity prevalence and death record information, this method can determine the transition probabilities of health statuses among aging cohorts.

In comparing the results of their projections against a control, Eggleston and her colleagues show that traditional static models do not always accurately forecast the prevalence of some comorbid conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. While the sample sets used to test the new methodology originate in Japan, the proposed multistate transition contingency table method has important applications for aging societies worldwide. As rapid population aging becomes a global trend, the ability to produce robust forecasts of population health and functional status to guide policy is a universal need.

Read the full paper in Health Economics.

Learn more about Eggleston’s research projects >>

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A communications robot named Pepper by Softbank

Robots May Be the Right Prescription for Struggling Nursing Homes

Karen Eggleston and Yong Suk Lee speak to the Oliver Wyman Forum on how robotics and advancing technologies are helping staff in Japanese nursing homes provide better and safer care to their patients.
Robots May Be the Right Prescription for Struggling Nursing Homes
Portrait of Young Kyung Do, Winner of the 2020 Rothman Epidemiology Prize

Asia Health Policy Program Alum Wins Rothman Epidemiology Prize

Dr. Young Kyung Do, an expert in health policy and management at the Seoul National University College of Healthy Policy and the inaugural postdoctoral fellow in Asia health policy at APARC, has been awarded the 2020 prize for his outstanding publication in the journal Epidemiology last year.
Asia Health Policy Program Alum Wins Rothman Epidemiology Prize
Cover image of the book "Healthy Aging in Asia", showing a smiling elderly Chinese woman with a cane standing in a small village.

New Book Highlights Policy Initiatives and Economic Research on Healthy Longevity Across Asia

Asia health policy expert Karen Eggleston’s new volume, ‘Healthy Aging in Asia,’ examines how diverse Asian economies – from Singapore and Hong Kong to Japan, India, and China – are preparing for older population age structures and transforming health systems to support patients who will live with chronic disease for decades.
New Book Highlights Policy Initiatives and Economic Research on Healthy Longevity Across Asia
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Asia Health Policy Director Karen Eggleston and her colleagues unveil a multistate transition microsimulation model that produces rigorous projections of the health and functional status of older people from widely available datasets.

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Most Americans don’t realize there are silent brokers helping to fix the price of their prescription drugs — or that it’s a $100 billion annual business accounting for half of Big Pharma sales.

They’re called pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), with CVS Caremark, Express Scripts and Optum RX dominating the market. Their chief function is to develop and maintain a list called the “formulary,” a list of drugs that will be covered by health-care plans. The formulary groups drugs into tiers with different levels of patient cost sharing.

They also pool volume across health plans to negotiate with drug manufacturers and retailers on prescription drug pricing. And PBMs reap rewards from rebates and fees that drug manufacturers pay them, as well as from a ‘pharmacy spread’ where PBMs bill health plans more than they reimburse pharmacies.  

All of this comes at a cost to patients.

“Patients typically only think about what they pay out-of-pocket at the pharmacy counter,” said Alex Chan, a PhD candidate in health economics at Stanford Health Policy. He and Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine and professor of economics, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, have just published a paper in JAMA Health Forum that examines these silent and powerful intermediaries.

“As PBMs leverage the formulary design to secure more and more rebates and fees from manufacturers, these drug manufacturers raise the list price in response,” Chan said. “The patients’ out-of-pocket cost at the counter would increase but at a less noticeable rate given that they co-pay are just a percentage of the list prices.”

Unless these rebates are passed along to consumers as reduced premiums, the net effect is an increase in premiums. Furthermore, if formulary design is used to help PBMs secure better rebates, PBMs may prioritize expensive drugs over more cost-effective drugs.


These pharmacy benefit managers have come under scrutiny as health policy experts learn more about the scale of prescription drug rebates and other questionable practices used by these intermediaries in the prescription drug market. For example, PBMs can include “gag clauses” that prohibits pharmacists from telling customers about cheaper drug options.

They ask themselves: What is the underlying value of PBMs for both payers and patients?

gettyimages pharmacy2jpg
Chan and his co-author Kevin Schulman acknowledge that PBMs play an important role in many transactions of the U.S. economy.

“They create value by providing information on the quality and value of products and services and by providing negotiation leverage as they amass scale by aggregating smaller buyers (or sellers),” they write. “Consumers can be sure to share in this value under three conditions: when there is competition among intermediaries, when pricing is transparent, and when it is clearly defined who is negotiating on whose behalf.”

But when these conditions are not met, they add: “We can find that intermediaries can hold a powerful and self-serving position in a market.”

Chan and Schulman found that in the drug prescription market, there are significant concerns about the value of these PBMs:

  1. Rather than a market where there is competition among PBMs, consolidation has resulted in a situation in which the three largest PBMs have about 80% of market share. There are significant barriers to competition among PBMs. If a health system wants to switch PBMs, it requires a significant investment in a “request-for-proposal” process.
  2. Drug-specific rebates are kept confidential between PBMs and drug manufacturers, and health plans have little ability to clearly assess the cost-savings for their members or to gauge the appropriateness of the rebate passthroughs.
  3. Under the rebate model, the role of the PBM has evolved to serving as an agent of both the payer and the manufacturer. The interests of payers and manufacturers are often in conflict, especially with respect to expenditures.

"One of the largest criticisms of PBMs is the lack of transparency surrounding the structure and scale of payments from manufacturers to the PBM,” the authors write. “The current PBM business is shrouded in secrecy.”

Only the PBM knows the actual scope of payments from drug manufacturers, such as rebates and service fees. They note that in 2016, for 13 pharmaceutical companies, payments to PBMs and other intermediaries (such as wholesalers) were $100 billion — or 50% of gross sales.

 “Without transparency, a PBM might develop formularies that maximize payments to the PBM rather than maximize value to patients,” Chan and Schulman write.

Suspicion over just that led health insurance company Anthem to sue Express Scripts for $15 billion in 2016 for overpayments on drug pricing. In the end, Anthem cut ties with Express Scripts to develop its own PBM.

“The PBMs have grown out of sync with what we can reasonably expect to be a value-adding intermediary,” Chan said. “It is hard to really tell how much inefficiencies have been created due to this lack of transparency.”

Legal Solutions

The authors note that Congress has taken steps to shed light on PBMs through the Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act and the Know the Lowest Price Act, both adopted in 2018. These laws outlaw PBMs gag clauses that forbid pharmacists from telling consumers that their price through a PBM was higher than the as price for the same product.

Chan said these laws are a move toward the direction of providing patients with more transparency about their options.

“An even more promising direction would be for legislation to make a stronger push towards public disclosure of rebates, discounts, and price concessions, along with lower barriers to entry to the PBM market,” he said.



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The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China beginning in December 2019. As of 31 January 2020, this epidemic had spread to 19 countries with 11 791 confirmed cases, including 213 deaths. The World Health Organization has declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

A scoping review was conducted following the methodological framework suggested by Arksey and O’Malley. In this scoping review, 65 research articles published before 31 January 2020 were analyzed and discussed to better understand the epidemiology, causes, clinical diagnosis, prevention and control of this virus. The research domains, dates of publication, journal language, authors’ affiliations, and methodological characteristics were included in the analysis. All the findings and statements in this review regarding the outbreak are based on published information as listed in the references.

Most of the publications were written using the English language (89.2%). The largest proportion of published articles were related to causes (38.5%) and a majority (67.7%) were published by Chinese scholars. Research articles initially focused on causes, but over time there was an increase of the articles related to prevention and control. Studies thus far have shown that the virus’ origination is in connection to a seafood market in Wuhan, but specific animal associations have not been confirmed. Reported symptoms include fever, cough, fatigue, pneumonia, headache, diarrhea, hemoptysis, and dyspnea. Preventive measures such as masks, hand hygiene practices, avoidance of public contact, case detection, contact tracing, and quarantines have been discussed as ways to reduce transmission. To date, no specific antiviral treatment has proven effective; hence, infected people primarily rely on symptomatic treatment and supportive care.

There has been a rapid surge in research in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. During this early period, published research primarily explored the epidemiology, causes, clinical manifestation and diagnosis, as well as prevention and control of the novel coronavirus. Although these studies are relevant to control the current public emergency, more high-quality research is needed to provide valid and reliable ways to manage this kind of public health emergency in both the short- and long-term.

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Infectious Diseases of Poverty
Sasmita Poudel Adhikari
Sha Meng
Yuju Wu
Yuping Mao
Ruixue Ye
Qingzhi Wang
Chang Sun
Sean Sylvia
Scott Rozelle
Scott Rozelle
Hein Raat
Huan Zhou
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Controversies over the lack of diagnostic testing for the COVID-19 virus have dominated U.S headlines for weeks. Technical challenges with the first test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) left the nation with minimal diagnostic capacity during the first few weeks of the epidemic, according to a new paper published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Michelle Mello, a professor of medicine at Stanford Health Policy and professor of law at Stanford Law School.

On February 29, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began allowing high-complexity labs across the country to use tests they developed in-house. On March 5, the Stanford Clinical Virology Lab deployed its own test for patients at Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health.

We asked Mello to answer some questions about the federal rollout of diagnostic testing.

You write that in the early stages, COVID-19 “spread beyond the nation’s ability to detect it.” Is there anything the U.S. government could or should have done weeks ago to get out ahead of the spread?

Adopting broader testing criteria and allowing use of a wider range of tests would have been helpful in identifying the first U.S. cases and containing the spread. Manufacturing problems like the one that arose with CDC’s test are always a risk, but the fact that CDC put all its eggs in that one basket made the manufacturing snafu highly consequential.

Also, the public messaging from Washington about the seriousness of the problem has been neither consistent nor accurate, and I worry it may have led Americans to take fewer steps to prevent community transmission than we should have. Containment was not “pretty close to airtight.” A vaccine was never going to be ready in “three to four months,” as the Trump administration claimed. The case fatality rate is not “way under 1 percent.” Part of the problem here is that as the stock market continues to plunge, the president and the task force he appointed appear to be more concerned about calming investors than stopping the virus.

We seem to be between a rock and a hard place: You write that remedying gaps in testing is imperative, yet “more testing is not always better.” How do we determine the happy middle ground?

First, the testing criteria have to be calibrated to our actual testing capacity. You can’t announce that any American who wants a coronavirus test can get one and then, within hours, announce that there aren’t enough test kits to make that possible. High priorities for testing include patients with serious, unexplained respiratory illness and contacts of known cases. From there, testing can be expanded, beginning with other high-risk groups, as capacity permits.

Second, we should consider unintended side effects of mass testing. The problem with this virus is that it doesn’t have signature symptoms. It looks like the common cold or the flu. If everyone with a cough or fever, or who has been around someone with a cough or fever, shows up in their doctor’s office demanding a test, it will quickly overwhelm care facilities that should be focusing on patients with a higher likelihood of being infected or and those who are infected and are seriously ill. It may also work against the social distancing measures that public health officials are trying to encourage, because crowded waiting rooms may spread the virus.

The CDC announced Monday it now has the testing capacity in 78 state and local public health labs across 50 states to test for the virus. There are now 75,000 lab kits cumulatively to test for COVID-19 with more coming on board by mid-March. But is there anything we could have done to roll this out earlier?

The alternative would have been to allow laboratories to deploy their own tests from the beginning, using the primers and protocols made publicly available by the World Health Organization. That’s what other countries have done. RT-PCR is a mature technology and high-complexity labs around the country are well-qualified to conduct this type of testing.

There is a public health argument for not going that route: perhaps those labs wouldn’t have done as good a job as CDC’s own lab and the state labs that it handpicked early in the outbreak. What if there were erroneous test results? We could miss cases, or we could put people into isolation, with huge social consequences, based on false-positive results. There is also a worry that some labs aren’t consistent about reporting positive test results to CDC, and underreporting could compromise disease surveillance efforts.

The counterargument is that high-complexity labs have that certification for a reason—they’re good at what they do. And of course, surveillance is also compromised when you miss cases because you don’t test.

You write in your paper that testing for COVID-19 “highlights a controversial area of public policy—the regulation of laboratory-developed tests—in which there has long been tension between the goals of access and quality.” Who should be in charge of regulating these tests?

Laboratory-developed tests are largely unregulated outside of emergencies. The FDA proposed draft guidance in 2014 that, if implemented, would have required labs to make certain showings to FDA about tests they developed in-house, with the particular evidence calibrated to the risks involved in having a wrong test result. Contrary to President Trump’s claim that an Obama-era policy constrained coronavirus testing, the guidance did not relate to emergency situations. During declared emergencies, another statute and set of regulations apply, and the FDA has broad discretion to allow or disallow use of novel diagnostics and therapies as emergency countermeasures.

As a general matter, it makes good sense to require labs to submit evidence that their in-house tests work. It’s odd that laboratory-developed tests are carved out of requirements that apply to other kinds of medical devices. It’s also sensible that our legal framework allows FDA’s regular rules to be relaxed during emergencies so we can tailor our response to the difficult and changing circumstances.

You write that diagnostic testing is critical to an effective response to the novel coronavirus. What sort of policies and guidelines should be put into place to prevent such a sluggish rollout during an emerging epidemic the next time one comes around?

The legal framework for an effective emergency response is in place. Because giving agency heads the discretion to act as potentially unforeseeable circumstances require is a linchpin of this legal framework, it only works if leaders make smart choices. Every emergency is different, and there is a danger of Monday-morning quarterbacking. But we should learn from every misstep we make, and I think the lesson here is to make better use of already developed networks of highly qualified labs to make sure we have adequate testing capacity to isolate cases and trace their contacts very early in an outbreak.

What are some innovative approaches we could be taking to speed up testing for those who really need it?

The South Koreans have set up drive-through testing stations in parking lots to avoid concentrating crowds of people indoors. Of course, that requires that you have plenty of test kits, which we don’t yet – but we should also be thinking about creative ways to address the epidemic. For example, how could video calls be used to monitor the health of people confined at home after being exposed to the virus? How can social media be used to connect neighbors to help one another when some are isolated at home? Hopefully we can find new ways for technology to bring us together when pathogens drive us apart.

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More evidence-based research is needed before the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force can recommend that clinicians screen their older patients for cognitive impairment such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cognitive impairment is a growing public health dilemma that affects millions of Americans as they age. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that Alzheimer’s rose from the 12th most burdensome disease or injury in the United States in 1990 to the 6th in 2016.

Medical experts who were commissioned to conduct an evidence report for the Task Force projected that the burden of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to grow to 13.8 million U.S. residents by 2050 — or nearly 3.3% of the projected U.S. population by that year.

Their findings, the Task Force recommendation statement and several accompanying editorials were all published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The symptoms of cognitive impairment can range from problems with memory and language, to learning new things or making decisions that affect everyday life. 

“Early identification of cognitive impairment through screening would ideally allow patients and their families to receive care at an earlier stage in the disease process, potentially facilitating discussions regarding health, financial, and legal decision-making while the patient still retains decision-making capacity,” the authors of the Task Force evidence report wrote.

But after reviewing some 287 studies including more than 285,000 older adults, the Task Force determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence about the benefits or harms of screening adults 65 and older who do not have signs or symptoms. The Task Force also did not find adequate evidence that screening for cognitive impairment improves decision-making or planning by patients, caregivers or doctors.

At the same time, there is little evidence on potential harms of screening, such as depression, anxiety or lower quality of life.

“Given the burden of dementia and the intense public interest in preventing cognitive impairment, the lack of progress is disheartening,” Carol Brayne, MD, with the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge in the UK, wrote in an accompanying JAMA editorial to the Task Force evidence report.

But, she added, “Political considerations and pressure from commercial interests and patient advocacy groups notwithstanding, public policies for dementia screening should be supported by evidence.”

The Task Force — an independent panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine — encourages clinicians to remain alert for early signs of symptoms of cognitive impairment, while calling for more research on the detection of dementia.

“Research is especially needed on whether screening and early detection of cognitive impairment helps patients, caregivers, and doctors make decisions about health care or plan for the future,” said Douglas K. Owens, chair of the Task Force and the director of Stanford Health Policy.  “We share the frustration of clinicians who want to offer something that could help patients prevent cognitive impairment. We hope that additional research will enable us to know whether that’s possible.”

The most commonly used screening tests include the Mini-Mental State Examination as well as the clock-drawing test. Screening tests involve asking patients to perform a series of tasks that asses one or more aspects of cognitive functions. The USPSTF concluded that more research is needed to know whether such screening tests can lead to interventions that help prevent or improve cognitive impairment. 


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Elderly patients hospitalized with congestive heart failure have a poor prognosis and high risk of death and hospital readmission. So, their post-discharge care can strongly influence their outcomes.

Yet despite data showing that transitional care interventions, such as home visits by nurses, can reduce death rates and hospital readmission by more than 30%, many health systems have not implemented such programs. Health policy experts say this is due in part to cost concerns and doubts about the effectiveness of these delivery services.

 Now, a team of Stanford Medicine and Veterans Affairs researchers has sought to assess whether transitional care interventions provide good value and better outcomes, as there are 5 million people living with congestive heart failure in the United States and 500,000 new cases diagnosed each year. CHF is the stage of chronic heart disease in which fluids build up around the heart, causing it to pump inefficiently.

The researchers updated a 2017 study on the impact of transitional care intervention with four years of additional data. They then used it to compare standard post-discharge management with three post-discharge regimes for patients 75 or older that they found to be most effective: disease management clinics, nurse home visits and nurse case management.

All three transitional care interventions delivered appreciable health benefits to the patient population, said Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine and core faculty member of Stanford Health Policy.

The findings were published in the Annals of International Medicine. Goldhaber-Fiebert is the senior author. The lead authors are Manuel R. Blum, MD, MS in Epidemiology & Clinical Research at Stanford in 2019 and now at the Department of General Internal Medicine at the University Hospital of Bern; Henning Øien, PhD, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo; and Harris L. Carmichael, MD, a Stanford/Intermountain Fellow in Population Health, Delivery Science, and Primary Care

“Transitional care interventions for older individuals with congestive heart failure — particularly nurse home visits — offer a high-value care alternative that could improve the health and longevity of millions of Americans,” he said.

The researchers said these transitional care services should become the standard of care for post-discharge management of patients with heart failure.

Heart failure causes 1 in 8 deaths nationwide

The prevalence of heart failure is estimated to be 26 million people worldwide and growing. In the United states, heart 5.7 million adults have been diagnosed with HF, with an estimated annual direct cost of $39.2 billion to $60 billion. Total heart failure costs in the United States are expected to exceed $70 billion by 2030, the authors wrote. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease costs the United States about $219 billion each year from health-care services, medicines and lost productivity.

Of the 15 million Americans in their mid-70s to 80s today, about 1 million suffer heart failure.

“So population gains from more effective post-discharge care would be hundreds of thousands of life years,” Goldhaber-Fiebert said. “Likewise, tens of thousands of costly rehospitalizations could be prevented each year if these interventions were delivered successfully.”

Heart failure primarily affects older people and is the second-most common inpatient diagnosis billed to Medicare. Yet the authors cite a recent study of 18 million Medicaid charges which found that only 7% of eligible patients at risk of rehospitalization received transitional services.

The standard post-hospital care for those patients includes sending them home with some advice and scheduling follow-up visits for them with cardiologists within 14 days of discharge. The researchers found that patients who received this standard post-hospitalization care with an average age of 75 had an average life expectancy of 2.9 years and 2.9 hospitalizations during their remaining lifetime. In comparison, nurse home visits decreased the number of hospitalizations by 10 readmissions per 100 patients and increased life expectancy by approximately four months, the study found.

“If these interventions were successfully implemented at scale, they could provide important substantial benefits with very good value,” said co-author Douglas Owens, MD, the Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Professor and professor of medicine at Stanford.

Reduced hospitalizations for congestive heart failure, according to the research, produces substantial cost savings that partially offset the costs of delivering the interventions. Though nurse home visits increase lifetime health care costs by $4,622, the substantial health benefits that they deliver justify their costs: $19,570 quality adjusted life years gained, which is considered highly cost-effective.

Hospital and insurance administrators take note

“Our results have important implications for decision-makers in hospital administration as well as in insurance and policy settings,” the authors wrote. They concluded:

  • Transitional care services should become the standard of care for post-discharge management of patients with heart failure;
  • The increasing reimbursement restrictions and regulations affecting HF hospital readmissions, through such programs as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, makes this research particularly informative to decision-makers;
  • Hospital administrators could use the research to determine which transitional services are most cost-effective for its rural population, overall patient base and hospital system.

The other Stanford researcher on the study was Paul Heidenreich, MD, a professor of medicine and health research and policy at the Stanford University School of Medicine and, by courtesy, professor of health research and policy at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System.


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May Wong
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The toll from gun violence at schools has only escalated in the 20 years since the jolting, horrific massacre at Columbine High.

By December 2019, at least 245 primary and secondary schools in the United States had experienced a shooting, killing 146 people and injuring 310, according to The Washington Post.

At least 245 primary and secondary schools in the United States have experienced a shooting — killing 146 people and injuring 310 — since the country's first mass school shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999.

Now, new Stanford-led research sounds an alarm to what was once a silent reckoning: the mental health impact to tens of thousands of surviving students who were attending schools where gunshots rang out.

A study has found that local exposure to fatal school shootings increased antidepressant use among youths.

Specifically, the average rate of antidepressant use among youths under age 20 rose by 21 percent in the local communities where fatal school shootings occurred, according to the study. And the rate increase – based on comparisons two years before the incident and two years after – persisted even in the third year out.

“There are articles that suggest school shootings are the new norm – they’re happening so frequently that we’re getting desensitized to them – and that maybe for the people who survive, they just go back to normal life because this is just life in America. But what our study shows is that does not appear to be the case,” said Maya Rossin-Slater, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy and faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). “There are real consequences on an important marker of mental health.”

The study is detailed in a working paper published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It was co-authored by Rossin-Slater, an assistant professor of health policy in the Stanford School of Medicine; Molly Schnell, a former postdoctoral fellow at SIEPR now an assistant professor at Northwestern University; Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor at Northwestern and former visiting fellow at SIEPR; Sam Trejo, a Stanford doctoral candidate in economics and education; and Lindsey Uniat, a former predoctoral research fellow at SIEPR now a PhD student at Yale University.

Their collaborative research – accelerated by their simultaneous stints at SIEPR – is the largest study to date on the effects of school shootings on youth mental health.

The study comes as the issue of gun safety continues to stoke political wrangling and public debate. And the researchers say their findings suggest policymakers should take a wide lens to their decision-making process.

“When we think about the cost of school shootings, they’re often quantified in terms of the cost to the individuals who die or are injured, and their families,” Rossin-Slater noted. “Those costs are unfathomable and undeniable. But the reality is that there are many more students exposed to school shootings who survive. And the broad implication is to think about the cost not just to the direct victims but to those who are indirectly affected.”

A Driver for Antidepressant Use

More than 240,000 students have been exposed to school shootings in America since the mass shooting in Columbine in April 1999, according to The Washington Post  data used in the study. And the number of school shootings per year has been trending up since 2015.

Yet despite this “uniquely American phenomenon” – since 2009, over 50 times more school shootings have occurred in the U.S. than in Canada, Japan, Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom combined – little is known about the effects of such gun violence on the mental health of the nation’s youth, the study stated.

“We know that poor mental health in childhood can have negative consequences throughout life,” Schwandt said. “At the same time, children are known to show significant levels of resilience, so it really wasn’t clear what we would find as we started this project.”

The researchers examined 44 shootings at schools across the country between January 2008 and April 2013. They used a database that covered the near universe of prescriptions filled at U.S. retail pharmacies along with information on the address of the medical provider who prescribed each drug. They compared the antidepressant prescription rates of providers practicing in areas within a 5-mile radius of a school shooting to those practicing in areas 10-to-15 miles away, looking at two years prior and two to three years after the incident.

Of those 44 school shootings, 15 of them involved at least one death. The 44 shootings occurred in 10 states: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Researchers found a marked increase in the rate of antidepressant prescriptions for youths nearby, but only for the shootings that were fatal. They did not see a significant effect on prescriptions for youths exposed to non-fatal school shootings.

“The immediate impact on antidepressant use that we find, and its remarkable persistence over two, and even three years, certainly constitutes a stronger effect pattern than what we would have expected,” Schwandt said.

Meanwhile, adult antidepressant use did not appear to be significantly impacted by local exposure to school shootings.

Layers of Costs, More Unknowns

The researchers also analyzed whether the concentration of child mental health providers in areas affected by fatal school shootings made a difference in the antidepressant rates, and they drilled a further comparison between the prevalence of those who can prescribe drugs, such as psychiatrists and other medical doctors, and those who cannot prescribe drugs, such as psychologists and licensed social workers.

Increases in antidepressant rates were the same across areas with both high and low concentrations of prescribing doctors, the researchers found. But in areas with higher concentrations of non-prescribing mental health providers, the increases in antidepressant use were significantly smaller – indicating perhaps a greater reliance on non-pharmacological treatments or therapy for shooting-related trauma.

The researchers also found no evidence that the rise in antidepressant usage stemmed from mental health conditions that were previously undiagnosed prior to the shootings.

In totality, the researchers say the results in the study clearly pointed to an adverse impact from a fatal shooting on the mental health of youths in the local community. Furthermore, the results capture only a portion of the mental health consequences: Non-drug related treatments could have been undertaken as well.

“Increased incidence of poor mental health is at least part of the story,” Schnell said.

Though their analysis included only 44 schools and 15 fatal school shootings, Rossin-Slater noted how the trend of school shootings is growing. She believes the mental health impact found on the local communities they studied “can be generalizable to other communities’ experiences.”

That’s all the more reason why policymakers should consider the overall negative effects of school shootings, and how further research will be needed to gauge other societal consequences, the researchers said.

“Think of it as layers of costs,” Rossin-Slater said. And when it comes to evaluating gun violence at schools, “we think our numbers say, ‘Hey, these are costly things, and it’s costlier than we previously thought.’”

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The U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, has prevented 2.2 million children from experiencing malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, according to new research led by Stanford Health Policy's PhD candidate Tess Ryckman.

The researchers compared children’s health in 33 low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In 12 of those countries, Feed the Future provided services such as agricultural assistance and financial services for farmers, as well as direct nutrition support, such as nutrient supplementation. 

The study, published online Dec. 11 in The BMJ, found a 3.9 percentage point decrease in chronic malnutrition among children served by Feed the Future, leading to 2.2 million fewer children whose development has been harmed by malnourishment.

“What we see with stunting rates is striking,” Ryckman said. “I would argue that 2 million fewer children stunted over seven years is major progress and puts a substantial dent in total stunting levels. And that’s 2 million children who will now have the levels of physical and cognitive development to allow them to reach their full potential.”

Stunting, or having a low height for a particular age, is a key indicator of child malnutrition. Children who aren’t properly nourished in their first 1,000 days are more likely to get sick more often, to perform poorly in school, grow up to be economically disadvantaged and suffer from chronic diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

A Controlled Study

Feed the Future is thought to be the world’s largest agricultural and nutrition program, with around $6 billion in funding from USAID (plus more from other federal agencies) between 2010 and 2015. Despite its size, much remains unknown about the effectiveness of the program.

The researchers analyzed survey data on almost 900,000 children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa from 2000 to 2017. They compared children from the Feed the Future countries with those in countries that are not participants in the program, both before and after the program’s implementation in 2011.

The researchers found the results were even more pronounced — a 4.6 percentage point decline in stunting — when they restricted their sample to populations most likely to have been reached by program. These included children who were younger when the program began, rural areas where Feed the Future operated more intensively, and in countries where the program had greater geographic coverage.

“Our findings are certainly encouraging because it has been difficult for other programs and interventions to demonstrate impact on stunting, and this program has received a lot of funding, so it’s good to see that it’s having an impact,” Ryckman said.

Multifaceted Approach to Nutrition

Experts are divided about the best way to help the world’s 149 million malnourished children: Is assistance that directly targets nutrition, such as breastfeeding promotion or nutrient supplementation, more effective? Or is it also beneficial to tackle the problem at its root by supporting agriculture and confronting household poverty?

The authors, including Stanford Health Policy’s Eran Bendavid, MD, associate professor of medicine, and Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, a senior fellow (by courtesy) at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies and a senior fellow senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said their analysis supports the value of a multifaceted approach to combating malnutrition among children, namely leveraging agriculture and food security interventions.

“Independent evaluations of large health policy programs such as Feed the Future help build the evidence base needed to tackle persistent patterns of undernutrition,” said Bendavid, an epidemiologist. “The widespread prevalence of stunting and chronic undernutrition is among the most common and yet most stubborn cause of underdevelopment in the world, and learning what works in this space is sorely needed.”

The researchers, including Stanford medical students Margot Robinson and Courtney Pederson, speculated that possible drivers of the program’s effectiveness include three features of Feed the Future’s design: its country-tailored approach; its focus on underlying drivers of nutrition, such as empowering female farmers; and its large scale and adequate funding.

The authors hope their independent evaluation of the program might lead to more funding and support for it. At the very least, they said, it should demonstrate to people working on Feed the Future and the broader global nutrition program community that programs focused mostly on agriculture and food security — indirect contributors to malnutrition — can lead to success.

Value Unknown

Feed the Future has been scaled back in recent years — it once served 19 countries and now reaches only 12. The program’s budget also remains somewhat murky.

“While there isn’t much data on the program’s funding under the Trump administration, the program appears to have been scaled back, at least in terms of the countries where it operates,” Ryckman said. “It’s possible that some of these gains could be lost, absent longer-term intervention from Feed the Future.”


The researchers also did not look at whether the program provided high value for the money spent.

“While we find that it has been effective, it hasn’t led to drastic declines in stunting and it is unclear whether it is good value for money,” she said.

Ryckman also noted that USAID’s own evaluation of its program is tenuous because it looked only at before-and-after stunting levels in Feed the Future countries without comparing the results to a control group or adjusting for other sources of bias, which is problematic because stunting is slowly declining in most countries.

“These types of evaluations are misleading,” Ryckman said. “The U.S. government really needs to prioritize having their programs independently evaluated using more robust methods. That was part of our motivation for doing this study.”

Support for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health (grant P20-AG17253), the National Science Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.


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I always find it hard to believe so many people are living in poverty: some 39.7 million Americans, or 12.3% of the population. It’s such a wealthy country, yet so many are poor.

In a twist that could be interpreted as good news — it doesn’t seem fair to say there is anything positive about living in poverty — I recently learned that older, low-income Americans tend to be healthier if they live in more affluent areas of the country.

Not only are they healthier, but their physical well-being is better across the board with a lower prevalence of dozens of chronic conditions, particularly if they live in rural communities. This, despite their income having less purchasing power in those better-resourced neighborhoods.

This was the key finding in new research published by Stanford Health Policy’s Maria Polyakova in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

While recent studies have reported that low-income adults living in more affluent areas of the United States have longer life expectancies, less has been known about the relationship between the affluence of a geographic area and morbidity of the low-income population.

“I was interested in figuring out whether the same relationship holds for morbidity: Are poorer people less sick in richer areas?” Polyakova told me. “And if so, are there any specific conditions that drive these differences that could be the target for policy-making?”

So Polyakova, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and her co-author, Lynn M. Hua at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to evaluate the association between chronic conditions among low-income, older adults and the economic affluence of a local area. 

They focused on nearly 6.4 million Medicare beneficiaries in 2015 aged 66 to 100 years old who received low-income support under Medicare Part D, a prescription drug program for Medicare enrollees. They investigated the prevalence of 48 chronic conditions among these patients, including common chronic conditions such as hypertension, depression, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. They found the presence of all conditions is highly correlated: places, where the poor tend to have a high prevalence of one disease, are likely to have a high prevalence of all 48 conditions.

“While we cannot ascertain a causal relationship, our results clearly point towards the importance of further understanding why the socioeconomic environment of low-income, older adults is so tightly linked to such a broad measure of health,” the researchers wrote. 

The results, they said, were broadly consistent with the extensive literature on the social determinants of health. But their work takes that literature even further.

“Our study extends this research by providing measures of the prevalence of chronic conditions among low-income, older adults for a large national sample of the U.S. population,” Polyakova said. 

The researchers used clinical, rather than self-reported measures of diagnoses and reported this group’s variation in morbidity across local areas of the country, rather than nationally. 

“Our results raise the bar for researchers who are trying to find out what factors drive health disparities in the U.S.; these factors would have to be able to explain the differences in nearly 50 condition,” Polyakova said.

The study supported by the National Institute on Aging came to three key conclusions:

  1. The health of low-income, older adults in the United States varies substantially across local geographic regions, and this variation cannot be attributed to one specific disease or a narrow set of conditions. 
  2. Consistent with their original hypothesis, they found that more affluent local areas of the country have a lower prevalence of chronic conditions in the low-income, older adult population.
  3. The researchers found that low-income, older adults have better health in rural areas of the country.

I wondered why these poor, older adults do particularly well in rural communities, as those regions often lack easy access to high-quality health care and state-of-the-art hospitals.

“We don’t know the exact answer, but there is a general sense that differences in the social fabric and lifestyle in rural areas — could contribute to this pattern,” Polyakova told me. “It appears that better health in these areas persists, despite challenges of accessing formal care.”




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