Where puppies and health economics meet

PhD Valérie Wester

Everyone – yep, including you – pays a monthly premium for a basic health insurance package. While you probably don’t like to see that well-earned money vanished from your account every month, the knowledge that we collectively ‘buy health’ with this money hopefully makes it a bit less painful. But how would you feel if you knew this money might not only be spent on medicines, diagnostics and surgical procedures, but also on: puppies?

My PhD project is where puppies and health economics meet. The decision where your premium money goes to is not yours to make. Instead, economic evaluations using measures of health (in both quality and length of life) and costs are used to inform decision-makers how to ‘buy’ the most health from our money. Health economists conduct these kinds of studies or aim to improve the methods used to perform such research. Now, let’s go back to the topic that probably got you interested in reading this blog: the puppies.

Dogs can be trained to aid people with a physical or mental disability, the guide dog being the best-known example. While one can image that the presence of a guide dog would have some effect on their human companion, the effects of such animal-assisted interventions are rarely studied in trials and evidence is largely anecdotical. My PhD project concerns the exciting challenge to study the benefits and costs of a lesser known assistance dog: seizure dogs. Seizure dogs are trained to assist people with severe epilepsy, and perform tasks that include activating an alarm button, retrieving a phone or medication, using their body to prevent unsafe situations during seizures (e.g. crossing the street in a state of impaired consciousness) and providing comfort until the seizure passes. The EPISODE study will evaluate the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and broader benefits of these seizure dogs, with the aim to inform decision-makers on whether these dogs should be paid for from ‘our’ insurance premium.

So should they? You can ask me again in about 3 years. Currently, the EPISODE puppies are carrying out their intensive two-year training program. Meanwhile, we collect data on the participants in the ‘control’ condition. During the trial, patients will sequentially move from the control to the intervention condition by receiving a trained seizure dog. In three years’ time, all 25 participants have received a seizure dog (no, we do not use placebo dogs ?) and we’ll have a rich dataset on health, well being, informal care, resource use, societal participation and caregiver impact. Even the well being of the dogs will be studied! Ever thought a health economics project could be so cuddly?

PhD student
More information

This blog is written by PhD candidate Valérie Wester of the research group Health Economics of Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management.

Would you like to hear more about the EPISODE study? You can visit our website, or follow us on facebook or twitter: