Societal preferences for distributive justice in the allocation of health care resources: a latent class discrete choice experiment

Chris Skedgel, Allan Wailoo, Ron Akehurst

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Economic theory suggests that resources should be allocated in a way that produces the greatest outputs, on the grounds that maximizing output allows for a redistribution that could benefit everyone. In health care, this is known as QALY (quality-adjusted life-year) maximization. This justification for QALY maximization may not hold, though, as it is difficult to reallocate health. Therefore, the allocation of health care should be seen as a matter of distributive justice as well as efficiency. A discrete choice experiment was undertaken to test consistency with the principles of QALY maximization and to quantify the willingness to trade life-year gains for distributive justice. An empirical ethics process was used to identify attributes that appeared relevant and ethically justified: patient age, severity (decomposed into initial quality and life expectancy), final health state, duration of benefit, and distributional concerns. Only 3% of respondents maximized QALYs with every choice, but scenarios with larger aggregate QALY gains were chosen more often and a majority of respondents maximized QALYs in a majority of their choices. However, respondents also appeared willing to prioritize smaller gains to preferred groups over larger gains to less preferred groups. Marginal analyses found a statistically significant preference for younger patients and a wider distribution of gains, as well as an aversion to patients with the shortest life expectancy or a poor final health state. These results support the existence of an equity-efficiency tradeoff and suggest that well-being could be enhanced by giving priority to programs that best satisfy societal preferences. Societal preferences could be incorporated through the use of explicit equity weights, although more research is required before such weights can be used in priority setting.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-105
Number of pages12
JournalMedical Decision Making
Issue number1
Early online date21 Aug 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • cluster analysis
  • equity in distribution
  • psychometric methods
  • resource allocation
  • survey methods

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