When does quality-adjusting life-years matter in cost-effectiveness analysis?

Health Econ. 2004 May;13(5):429-36. doi: 10.1002/hec.853.


Purpose: This paper investigates the impact of quality-of-life adjustment on cost-effectiveness analyses, by comparing ratios from published studies that have reported both incremental costs per (unadjusted) life-year and per quality-adjusted life-year for the same intervention.

Methods: A systematic literature search identified 228 original cost-utility analyses published prior to 1998. Sixty-three of these analyses (173 ratio pairs) reported both cost/LY and cost/QALY ratios for the same intervention, from which we calculated medians and means, the difference between ratios (cost/LY minus cost/QALY) and between reciprocals of the ratios, and cost/LY as a percentage of the corresponding cost/QALY ratio. We also compared the ratios using rank-order correlation, and assessed the frequency with which quality-adjustment resulted in a ratio crossing the widely used cost-effectiveness thresholds of 20, 000 US dollars, 50,000 US dollars, and 100,000 US dollars/QALY or LY.

Results: The mean ratios were 69,100 US dollars/LY and 103,100 US dollars/QALY, with corresponding medians of 24,600 US dollars/LY and 20,400 US dollars/QALY. The mean difference between ratios was approximately -34,300 US dollars (median difference: 1300 US dollars), with 60% of ratio pairs differing by 10,000 US dollars/year or less. Mean difference between reciprocals was 59 (QA)LYs per million dollars (median: 2.1). The Spearman rank-order correlation between ratio types was 0.86 (p<0.001). Quality-adjustment led to a ratio moving either above or below 50,000 US dollars/LY (or QALY) in 8% of ratio pairs, and across 100,000 US dollars in 6% of cases.

Conclusions: In a sizable fraction of cost-utility analyses, quality adjusting did not substantially alter the estimated cost-effectiveness of an intervention, suggesting that sensitivity analyses using ad hoc adjustments or 'off-the-shelf' utility weights may be sufficient for many analyses. The collection of preference weight data should be subjected to the same scrutiny as other data inputs to cost-effectiveness analyses, and should only be under-taken if the value of this information is likely to be greater than the cost of obtaining it.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis*
  • Humans
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years*
  • United States