Life-saving treatments and disabilities: are all QALYs created equal?

  • Peter Ubel
  • Richardson J
  • Pinto Pr

Objectives: Decision-makers and the general public are often reluctant to adopt policy recommendations based exclusively upon cost?utility analyses. One possible reason explored here is that patients' previous health state before experiencing the onset of an acute life-threatening illness may influence the value of saving those patients' lives.Methods: We surveyed members of the general public to see the relative importance of saving patients' lives when some patients could be returned to perfect health and others would live the remainder of their years with paraplegia. Among this latter group, some were described as having pre-existing paraplegia. Others were described as having the onset of paraplegia. The relative importance of saving each of these lives was measured using the person trade-off method.Results: Six hundred five subjects completed questionnaires, and 250 met pre-established consistency criteria and were included in the final analysis. Overall, subjects placed equal importance on saving the lives of people with pre-existing paraplegia versus those who could be returned to perfect health because they did not have pre-existing paraplegia. In contrast, respondents gave lower priority to patients who would experience the onset of paraplegia after having their lives saved, especially if their paraplegia was avoidable with an alternative treatment.Conclusion: People do not think that all quality-adjusted life-years are created equal. Instead, the value that people place on treatment programs depends on patients' state of health before developing life-threatening illnesses, and on whether alternative treatments are available that provide better health outcomes for the patients. These results may explain, in part, public discomfort over basing health care priorities on cost?utility analysis.

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