Societal values in the allocation of healthcare resources: is it all about the health gain?

Patient. 2011;4(4):207-25. doi: 10.2165/11588880-000000000-00000.


Over the past decade, public distrust in unavoidable value-laden decisions on the allocation of resources to new health technologies has grown. In response, healthcare organizations have made considerable efforts to improve their acceptability by increasing transparency in decision-making processes. However, the social value judgments (distributive preferences of the public) embedded in them have yet to be defined. While the need to explicate such judgments has become widely recognized, the most appropriate approach to accomplishing this remains unclear. The aims of this review were to identify factors around which distributive preferences of the public have been sought, create a list of social values proposed or used in current resource allocation decision-making processes for new health technologies, and review approaches to eliciting such values from the general public. Social values proposed or used in making resource allocation decisions for new health technologies were identified through three approaches: (i) a comprehensive review of published, peer-reviewed, empirical studies of public preferences for the distribution of healthcare; (ii) an analysis of non-technical factors or social value statements considered by technology funding decision-making processes in Canada and abroad; and (iii) a review of appeals to funding decisions on grounds in part related to social value judgments. A total of 34 empirical studies, 10 technology funding decision-making processes, and 12 appeals to decisions were identified and reviewed. The key factors/patient characteristics addressed through policy statements and around which distributive preferences of the public have been sought included severity of illness, immediate need, age (and its relationship to lifetime health), health gain (amount and final outcome/health state), personal responsibility for illness, caregiving responsibilities, and number of patients who could benefit (rarity). Empirical studies typically examined the importance of these factors in isolation. Therefore, the extent to which preferences around one factor may be modified in the presence of others is still unclear. Research that seeks to clarify interactions among factors by asking the public to weigh several of them at once is needed to ensure the relevance of elicited preferences to real-world technology funding decisions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Resource Allocation*
  • Social Values*