Assessing the impact of natural policy experiments on socioeconomic inequalities in health: how to apply commonly used quantitative analytical methods?

Hu Y, van Lenthe F, Hoffmann R, van Hedel K, Mackenbach JP 2017, BMC Medical Research Methodology, 17:68.


Background: The scientific evidence-base for policies to tackle health inequalities is limited. Natural policy experiments (NPE) have drawn increasing attention as a means to evaluating the effects of policies on health. Several analytical methods can be used to evaluate the outcomes of NPEs in terms of average population health, but it is unclear whether they can also be used to assess the outcomes of NPEs in terms of health inequalities. The aim of this study therefore was to assess whether, and to demonstrate how, a number of commonly used analytical methods for the evaluation of NPEs can be applied to quantify the effect of policies on health inequalities.

Methods: We identified seven quantitative analytical methods for the evaluation of NPEs: regression adjustment, propensity score matching, difference-in-differences analysis, fixed effects analysis, instrumental variable analysis, regression discontinuity and interrupted time-series. We assessed whether these methods can be used to quantify the effect of policies on the magnitude of health inequalities either by conducting a stratified analysis or by including an interaction term, and illustrated both approaches in a fictitious numerical example.

Results: All seven methods can be used to quantify the equity impact of policies on absolute and relative inequalities in health by conducting an analysis stratified by socioeconomic position, and all but one (propensity score matching) can be used to quantify equity impacts by inclusion of an interaction term between socioeconomic position and policy exposure.  

Conclusion: Methods commonly used in economics and econometrics for the evaluation of NPEs can also be applied to assess the equity impact of policies, and our illustrations provide guidance on how to do this appropriately. The low external validity of results from instrumental variable analysis and regression discontinuity makes these methods less desirable for assessing policy effects on population-level health inequalities. Increased use of the methods in social epidemiology will help to build an evidence base to support policy making in the area of health inequalities.