Nutrition and health technology assessment: when two worlds meet

Marten J Poley
Frontiers in Pharmacology 2015, 6: 232
There is a growing recognition that nutrition may have a positive impact on public health and that it may reduce medical expenditures. Yet, such claims need to be substantiated by evidence. This evidence could be delivered by health technology assessment (HTA), which can be thought of as the evaluation of technologies for clinical effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and ethical, legal, and social impacts. The application of HTA to the field of "nutrition interventions" is recent. So far, HTA and nutrition have represented two worlds far apart in many respects. This contribution, roughly, addresses the following issues: is there a need for HTAs in the field of nutrition, what would such HTAs look like, and how can the results coming from these HTAs optimally aid policy making? In essence, HTAs of nutrition have much of the same basic principles and structure as HTAs of "classical" health care treatments. Nevertheless, there are challenges to rigorous HTAs of nutrition interventions, for various reasons. To mention a few: the evidence base for nutrition interventions is less well developed than that for many health care treatments. Furthermore, it is a matter of debate which outcome measures should be used in HTAs of nutrition. For example, one may argue that nutrition not only has health effects, but also effects that are not captured by traditional health-related quality of life measures (e.g., the pleasure of eating, effects relating to ease of use, or effects on well-being). HTAs in the field of nutrition may deliver information valuable to a wide range of stakeholders, including consumers/patients, health professionals, hospital administrators, insurers, and decision makers. The results of HTAs are typically used in making treatment guidelines, in informing decisions about reimbursement or about public health campaigns, etc. Yet, it is uncertain how the results of HTAs of nutrition can be used optimally. For example, would it be possible to summarize the results of a HTA in a single ratio (such as costs per quality-adjusted life-year gained) and then to either approve or reject the intervention based on this ratio, compared to a certain threshold? Apart from that, in the field of nutrition, it is typically not about reimbursement of a technology. Related to this, it is important that the message from HTAs of nutrition is brought to a range of stakeholders including the general population and that these HTAs are tailored to the decision-making context. To conclude, a growing need is felt for HTA-type evaluations of nutrition, which are sparse these days. Little thought has been given to developing an optimal methodology for HTAs of nutrition and to how its results should be integrated into policy making. Further work in these areas would stimulate the development of nutrition interventions that yield a gain in societal welfare. To achieve this, the two worlds of HTA and nutrition need to be brought together.

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