Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent congenital disorders among children. Many countries have implemented universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS) for the early diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss. Despite widespread implementation, the value for money of UNHS is unclear due to lack of cost and outcomes data from rigorous study designs. The objective of this research is to conduct a within-study cost-effectiveness analysis of UNHS compared with targeted screening (targeting children with risk factors of hearing loss) from the Australian healthcare system perspective. This evaluation is the first economic evaluation to assess the cost-effectiveness of UNHS compared to targeted screening using real-world data from a natural experiment.
The evaluation assumed the Australian healthcare system perspective and considered a time horizon of 5 years. Utilities were estimated using responses to the Health Utilities Index Mark III. Screening costs were estimated based on the Victorian Infant Hearing Screening Program. Ongoing costs were estimated based on administrative data, while external data sources were used to estimate costs related to hearing services. Missing data were handled using the multiple imputation method. Outcome measures included quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and four language and communication-related outcomes: Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Wechsler Nonverbal Scale of Ability, Progressive Achievement Test, and comprehensive, expressive, and total language scores based on the Preschool Language Scale.
On average, the UNHS cost an extra Australian dollar (A$)22,000 per diagnosed child and was associated with 0.45 more QALYs per diagnosed child compared with targeted screening to 5 years, resulting in an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of A$48,000 per QALY gained. The ICERs for language outcomes lay between A$3,900 (for expressive language score) and A$83,500 per one-point improvement in language score (for Wechsler Nonverbal Scale of Ability). UNHS had a 69% probability of being more cost-effective compared to targeted screening at a willingness to pay threshold of A$60,000 per QALY gained. ICERs were most sensitive to the screening costs.
The evaluation demonstrated the usefulness of a within-study economic evaluation to understand the value for money of the UNHS program in the Australian context. Findings from this evaluation suggested that screening costs were the key driver of cost-effectiveness results. Most outcomes were not significantly different between UNHS and targeted screening groups. The ICER may be overestimated due to the short follow-up period. Further research is warranted to include long-term resource use and outcome data, late diagnosis, transition and remission between severity levels, and timing of diagnosis and treatment.