Utilitarianism and the measurement and aggregation of quality--adjusted life years

Health Care Anal. 2001;9(1):65-76. doi: 10.1023/A:1011387524579.


It is widely accepted that one of the main objectives of government expenditure on health care is to generate health. Since health is a function of both length of life and quality of life, the quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) has been developed in an attempt to combine the value of these attributes into a single index number. The QALY approach--and particularly the decision rule that health care resources should be allocated so as to maximise the number of QALYs generated--has often been equated with the utilitarian philosophy of maximising 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. This paper considers the extent to which the measurement and aggregation of QALYs really is utilitarian by developing a new taxonomy in order to classify utilitarianism and the different aspects of the QALY approach. It is shown that the measurement of QALYs is consistent with a number of different moral positions and that QALYs do not have to be aggregated according to the maximisation rule. Therefore it is inappropriate to necessarily equate QALYs with utilitarianism. It is shown that much turns on what in principle the QALY represents and how in practice it can be operationalised. The paper highlights the category confusion that is often present here and suggests possible avenues for future theoretical and empirical research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Classification
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Ethics*
  • Health Care Rationing / standards
  • Health Policy
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years*
  • Social Welfare