Priority setting and cardiac surgery: a qualitative case study

Health Policy. 2007 Mar;80(3):444-58. doi: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2006.05.004. Epub 2006 Jun 6.


Purpose: The purpose of this study is to describe priority setting in cardiac surgery and evaluate it using an ethical framework, "accountability for reasonableness".

Introduction: Cardiac surgery is an expensive part of hospital budgets. Priority setting decisions are made daily regarding ever increasing volumes of patients. While much attention has been paid to the management of cardiac surgery waiting lists, little empirical research exists into the way actual decision makers deliberate upon and resolve priority setting decisions on a daily basis. A key goal of priority setting, in cardiac surgical areas as well as others, is fairness. "Accountability for reasonableness" is a leading ethical framework for fair priority setting, and can be used to identify opportunities for improvement (i.e. make it fairer) and highlight good practices.

Methods: A case study was conducted to examine the process of priority setting processes at three University of Toronto affiliated cardiac surgery centres. Relevant documents were examined, weekly triage rounds were observed for 27 months, and interviews were carried out with 23 key participants including cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, and triage nurses. In data analysis, the conditions of "accountability for reasonableness" (relevance, publicity, appeals and enforcement) were used as an analytic lens.

Relevance: While decisions may appear to be based strictly upon clinical criteria (e.g. coronary anatomy); non-clinical criteria also have an impact upon decision-making (e.g. patients' lifestyle choices, type of surgical practice and departmental constraints on resource use). Participants stated that these factors influence their decision-making and can result in unfair and inconsistent decisions. PUBLICITY: Non-clinical reasons are not publicly accessible, nor are they clearly acknowledged in discussions between cardiac clinicians. APPEALS: There are mechanisms for challenging decisions however without access to the non-clinical reasons, this can be problematic. Enforcement: Participants cite little departmental or institutional support to engage in fairer priority setting.

Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first study to describe actual priority setting practices for cardiac surgery practices and evaluate them using an ethical framework, in this case, "accountability for reasonableness". Priority setting decision making in cardiac surgery has been described and evaluated with lessons learned include specific findings regarding the contextual and dynamic nature of decision making in cardiac surgery. The approach of combining a descriptive case study with the ethical framework of "accountability for reasonableness" is a useful tool for identifying good practices and highlighting areas for improvement. The good practices (including surgeons strongly facilitating patients seeking second opinions and approaching patients from a holistic perspective in consideration for surgery) and areas for improvement (including lack of transparency and lack of institutional support for "fair" decision making) that we have identified in this case study can be used to reflect upon the present tool used in priority setting and improve the fairness and legitimacy of priority setting decision making in cardiac surgery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Health Personnel
  • Heart Diseases / surgery*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Ontario
  • Waiting Lists*