Priority-setting and rationing in healthcare: evidence from the English experience

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Dec;75(12):2386-93. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.09.014. Epub 2012 Sep 20.


In a context of ever increasing demand, the recent economic downturn has placed further pressure on decision-makers to effectively target healthcare resources. Over recent years there has been a push to develop more explicit evidence-based priority-setting processes, which aim to be transparent and inclusive in their approach and a number of analytical tools and sources of evidence have been developed and utilised at national and local levels. This paper reports findings from a qualitative research study which investigated local priority-setting activity across five English Primary Care Trusts, between March and November 2012. Findings demonstrate the dual aims of local decision-making processes: to improve the overall effectiveness of priority-setting (i.e. reaching 'correct' resource allocation decisions); and to increase the acceptability of priority-setting processes for those involved in both decision-making and implementation. Respondents considered priority-setting processes to be compartmentalised and peripheral to resource planning and allocation. Further progress was required with regard to disinvestment and service redesign with respondents noting difficulty in implementing decisions. While local priority-setters had begun to develop more explicit processes, public awareness and input remained limited. The leadership behaviours required to navigate the political complexities of working within and across organisations with differing incentives systems and cultures remained similarly underdeveloped.

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • England
  • Health Care Rationing / organization & administration*
  • Hospitals, Public
  • Humans
  • Leadership
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Primary Health Care / organization & administration
  • Qualitative Research