Economic Evaluation Methods Part I: Interpreting Cost-Effectiveness Acceptability Curves and Estimating Costs

By Erik Landaas, Elizabeth Brouwer, and Lotte Steuten

One of the main training activities at the CHOICE Institute at the University of Washington is to instruct graduate students how to perform economic evaluations of medical technologies. In this blog post series, we give a brief overview of two important economic evaluation concepts. Each one of the concepts are mutually exclusive and are meant to stand alone. The first of this two-part series describes how to interpret a cost-effectiveness acceptability curve (CEAC) and then delves into ways of costing a health intervention. The second part of the series will describe two additional concepts: how to develop and interpret cost-effectiveness frontiers and how multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) can be used in Health Technology Assessment (HTA).


Cost-Effectiveness Acceptability Curve (CEAC)

The CEAC is a way to graphically present decision uncertainty around the expected incremental cost-effectiveness of healthcare technologies. A CEAC is created using the results of a probabilistic analysis(PA).[1] PA involves simultaneously drawing a set of input parameter values by randomly sampling from each parameter distribution, and then storing the model results.  This is repeated many times (typically 1,000 to 10,000), resulting in a distribution of outputs that can be graphed on the cost-effectiveness plane. The CEAC reflects the proportion of results that are considered ‘favorable’ (i.e. cost effective) in relation to a given cost-effectiveness threshold.

The primary goal of a CEAC graph is to inform coverage decisions among payers that are considering a new technology, comparing one or more established technologies that may include the standard of care. The CEAC enables a payer to determine, over a range of willingness to pay (WTP) thresholds, the probability that a medical technology is considered cost-effective in comparison to its appropriate comparator (e.g. usual care), given the information available at the time of the analysis. A WTP threshold is generally expressed in terms of societal willingness to pay for an additional life year or quality-adjusted life year (QALY) gained. In the US, WTP thresholds typically range between $50,000 – $150,000 per QALY.

The X-axis of a CEAC represents the range of WTP thresholds. The Y-axis represents the probability of each comparator being cost-effective at a given WTP threshold, and ranges between 0% and 100%. Thus, it simply reflects the proportion of simulated ICERs from the PA that fall below the corresponding thresholds on the X-axis.

Figure 1. The Cost-Effectiveness Acceptability Curve


Coyle, Doug, et al. “Cost-effectiveness of new oral anticoagulants compared with warfarin in preventing stroke and other cardiovascular events in patients with atrial fibrillation.” Value in health 16.4 (2013): 498-506.

Figure 1 shows CEACs for five different drugs, making it easy for the reader to see that at the lower end of the WTP threshold range (i.e. $0 – $20,000 per QALY), warfarin has the highest probability to be cost-effective (or in this case “optimal”). At WTP values >$20,000 per QALY, dabigatran has the highest probability to be cost-effective. All the other drugs have a lower probability of being cost-effective compared to warfarin and dabigatran at every WTP threshold. The cost-effectiveness acceptability frontier in Figure 1 follows along the top of all the curves and shows directly which of the five technologies has the highest probability of being cost-effective at various levels of the WTP thresholds.

To the extent that the unit price of the technology influences the decision uncertainty, a CEAC can offer insights to payers as well as manufacturers as they consider a value-based price. For example, a lower unit price for the drug may lower the ICER and, all else equal, this increases the probability that the new technology is considered cost-effective at a given WTP threshold. Note, that when new technologies are priced such that the ICER falls just below the WTP for a QALY, (e.g. an ICER of $99,999 when the WTP is $100,000) the decision uncertainty tends to be substantial, often around 50%. If decision uncertainty is perceived to be ‘unacceptably high’, it can be recommended to collect further information to reduce decision uncertainty. Depending on the drivers of decision uncertainty, for example in case of stochastic uncertainty in the efficacy parameters, performance-based risk agreements (PBRAs) or managed entry schemes may be appropriate tools to manage the risk.

Cost estimates

The numerator of most economic evaluations for health is the cost of a technology or intervention. There are several ways to arrive at that cost, and choice of method depends on the context of the intervention and the available data.

Two broadly categorized methods for costing are the bottom-up methodand the top-down method. These methods, described below, are not mutually exclusive and may complement each other, although they often do not produce the same results.


Source of Table: Mogyorosy Z, Smith P. The main methodological issues in costing health care services: a literature review. 2005.

The bottom-up method is also known as the ingredients approach or micro-costing. In this method, the analyst identifies all the items necessary to complete an intervention, such as medical supplies and clinician time, and adds them up to estimate the total cost. The main categories to consider when calculating costs via the bottom-up method are medical costs and non-medical costs. Medical costs can be direct, such as the supplies used to perform a surgery, or indirect, such as the food and bed used for inpatient care. Non-medical costs often include costs to the patient, such as transportation to the clinic or caregiver costs. The categories used when estimating the total cost of an intervention will depend on the perspective the analyst takes (perspectives include patient, health system, or societal).

The bottom-up approach can be completed prospectively or retrospectively, and can be helpful for planning and budgeting. Because the method identifies and values each input, it allows for a clear breakdown as to where dollars are being spent. To be accurate, however, one must be able to identify all the necessary inputs for an intervention and know how to value capital inputs like MRI machines or hospital buildings. The calculations may also become unwieldy on a very large scale. The bottom-up approach is often used in global health research, where medical programs or governmental agencies supply specific items to implement an intervention, or in simple interventions where there are only a few necessary ingredients.

The top-down estimation approach takes the total cost of a project and divides it by the number of service units generated. In some cases, this is completed simply looking at the budget for a program or an intervention and then dividing that total by the number of patients. The top-down approach is useful because it is a simple, intuitive measurement that captures the actual amount of money spent on a project and the number of units produced, particularly for large projects or organizations. Compared to the bottom-up approach, the top-down approach can be much faster and cheaper. The top-down approach can only be used retrospectively, however, and may not allow for the breakdown of how the money was spent or be able to identify variations between patients.

While the final choice will depend on several factors, it makes sense to try and think through (or model) which of the cost inputs are likely to be most impactful on the model results. For example, the costs of lab tests may most accurately be estimated by a bottom-up costing approach. However, if these lab costs are likely to be a fraction of the cost of treatment, say a million dollar cure for cancer, then going through the motions of a bottom-up approach may not be the most efficient way to get your PhD-project done in time. In other cases, however, a bottom-up approach may provide crucial insights that move the needle on the estimated cost-effectiveness of medical technologies, particularly in settings where a lack of existing datasets is limiting the potential of cost-effectiveness studies to inform decisions on the allocation of scarce healthcare resources.

[1]Fenwick, Elisabeth, Bernie J. O’Brien, and Andrew Briggs. “Cost‐effectiveness acceptability curves–facts, fallacies and frequently asked questions.” Health economics 13.5 (2004): 405-415.

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Elizabeth Brouwer

My name is Elizabeth “Lizzy” Brouwer and I am motivated by the enormous potential of health economics and policy to change lives. Resources are finite, and millions of lives depend on whether spending is guided by evidence. I am working toward a PhD in Health Economics and Outcomes Research at the CHOICE Institute in the University of Washington, with a foot in both domestic and global sectors of health policy. My research interests center around using value-based frameworks, economic evaluation, health technology assessment, and econometric analysis to inform the prioritization of health spending.

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