QALYS and ethics: a health economist's perspective

Soc Sci Med. 1996 Dec;43(12):1795-804. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(96)00082-2.


Objectors on ethical grounds to the use of QALYs in priority-setting in public health care systems are here categorised as (1) those who reject all collective priority-setting as unethical; (2) those who accept the need for collective priority-setting but believe that it is contrary to medical ethics; (3) those who accept the need for collective priority-setting and do not believe that it is contrary to medical ethics, but reject the role of QALYs in it on other ethical grounds; and (4) those who accept the need for collective priority-setting in principle, but are unwilling to specify how it should be done in practice. It is argued that the first two groups of objectors are simply wrong, if distributive justice is a proper ethical concern in this context. The third group is of more interest, as this group appears to believe that QALYs are unethical because it is unethical to regard QALY maximisation as the sole objective of the health care system. This paper argues that QALYs are relevant to a much wider range of objectives than QALY maximisation, and that they can accommodate a wide variety of health dimensions and sources of valuation. They can also accommodate the differential weighting of benefits according to who gets them, so they do not commit their users to any particular notion of distributive justice. What they do commit their users to is the notion that the health of people is a central concept in priority-setting, and that it is desirable, for reasons of accountability, to have the bases for such priority-setting made as precise and explicit as possible. The fourth group of objectors needs to acknowledge that there is no perfect system on offer, and since priority-setting does and will proceed willy-nilly we cannot wait until there is. It would be more constructive to set up the desiderata that a priority-setting system should ideally fulfil, and then appraise all feasible alternatives (including the status quo) even-handedly by those criteria. None will be perfect, but this author predicts that QALYs would emerge from such an appraisal with a significant role to play.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Health Care Rationing
  • Health Priorities*
  • Humans
  • Patient Advocacy
  • Public Health Administration / standards*
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years*
  • Resource Allocation*
  • Social Justice
  • Social Responsibility
  • Social Values
  • Vulnerable Populations