The Ex-Post Dead Are Not Ex-Ante Hopeless

It’s well known that a large faction of medical spending occurs in the last 12 months of life but does this mean that the money spent was fruitless? Be careful as there is a big selection effect–we don’t see the people we spent money on who didn’t die. A new paper in Science by Einav, Finkelstein, Mullainathan and Obermeyer finds that most spending is not on people who are predicted to die within the next 12 months.

That one-quarter of Medicare spending in the United States occurs in the last year of life is commonly interpreted as waste. But this interpretation presumes knowledge of who will die and when. Here we analyze how spending is distributed by predicted mortality, based on a machine-learning model of annual mortality risk built using Medicare claims. Death is highly unpredictable. Less than 5% of spending is accounted for by individuals with predicted mortality above 50%. The simple fact that we spend more on the sick—both on those who recover and those who die—accounts for 30 to 50% of the concentration of spending on the dead. Our results suggest that spending on the ex post dead does not necessarily mean that we spend on the ex ante “hopeless.

…”Even if we zoom in further on the subsample of individuals who enter the hospital with metastatic cancer…we find that only 12% of decedents have an annual predicted mortality of more than 80%.

Thus, we aren’t spending on people for whom there is no hope but it doesn’t follow that it’s the spending that creates the hope. What we really want to know is who will live or die conditional on the spending. And to that issue this paper does not speak.


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