Health systems worldwide are grappling with the need to control costs to maintain system viability. With the combination of worsening economic conditions, an aging population and reductions in tax revenues, the pressures to make structural changes are expected to continue growing. Common cost control mechanisms, e.g. curtailment of patient access and treatment prioritization, are likely to be adversely viewed by citizens. It seems therefore wise to include them in the decision making processes that lead up to policy changes. In the context of a multilevel iterative mixed-method design a quantitative survey representative of the German population (N = 2031) was conducted to probe the acceptance of priority setting in medicine and to explore the practicability of direct public involvement. Here we focus on preferences for patients' characteristics (medical aspects, lifestyle and socio-economic status) as possible criteria for prioritizing medical services. A questionnaire with closed response options was fielded to gain insight into attitudes toward broad prioritization criteria of patient groups. Furthermore, a discrete choice experiment was used as a rigorous approach to investigate citizens' preferences toward specific criteria level in context of other criteria. Both the questionnaire and the discrete choice experiment were performed with the same sample. The citizens' own health and social situation are included as explanatory variables. Data were evaluated using corresponding analysis, contingency analysis, logistic regression and a multinomial exploded logit model. The results show that some medical criteria are highly accepted for prioritizing patients whereas socio-economic criteria are rejected.