Background: Interest in assessing the value of health-care services in Germany has considerably increased since the foundation of the Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen, IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care). The practical application of value assessment illustrates how problematic the process can be. In all decisions made for the provision of health care, data concerning the measurable dimensions (quantity and quality of efficacy and effectiveness, validity of the results and costs) flow into a complex and not yet standardized decision-making process concerning public financing. Some of these decisions are based on data of uncertain validity, unknown reproducibility and unclear appropriateness.
Discussion: In this paper we describe the theoretical aspects of value from psychological and economic viewpoints and discuss national and international approaches. Methodic details and difficulties in assessing the value of health-care services are analysed. A definition of the intangible value of health-care services will be proposed which contains only three factors: the absolute risk reduction (usually a measure of efficacy), the validity of the scientific papers examined and the type of the expected effectiveness (prevention of death and disability, restitution of well-being). The intangible value describes the additional benefit when comparing two possible actions, like treatment or observation only.
Conclusion: The description of intangible value from the viewpoint of different stakeholders is a useful measure for subsequent steps (not discussed here) - the evaluation of costs and of patient benefit. A standardised, transparent, fair and democratic evaluation is essential for the definition of a basic benefit package.