How should patients be prioritized in health care? In many countries’ regulations, the answer to this question is formulated in terms of severity: the more severe the illness of a patient is, the higher the patient should be prioritized. Although other things may matter for health care priorities, such as cost-effectiveness, severity should be at least one of the criteria. But what makes an illness more severe than another? How should we compare patients in terms of severity?
A recently launched research project tries to tackle these issues. The project is a collaboration between CRB and The National Centre for Priorities in Health in Sweden at Linköping University. The issue of morally sound priority setting in health care is increasingly important and pressing, not least because of the continuing development of new treatments. We can do more for patients today than ever before, but these treatments compete for the limited resources of health care.
The purpose of the project is to make the vague and contested notion of severity more normatively robust and precise by investigating moral issues related to severity. If the concept of severity is to provide valid reasons for prioritization, we must first examine what we should mean by the concept in the context of disease and health care. For instance, there are different ideas about why severity should matter in health care priorities. One idea is that being more severely ill means being worse off than others and that this inequality is something bad. Another idea is that we have stronger reasons to help people the worse off they are, that is, some idea about the moral weight of evil. These different ideas have different implications for which patients to treat first.
There are also different notions about what features of a patient or illness makes that patient more severely ill. It could be quality of life, functioning, existential suffering, or length of life. A common intuition is that an illness with a prognosis of one year survival is more severe when it affects a 20-year old person than an 80-year old person, but that there is no difference in severity when the same illness affects people only ten years apart, say a 40-year old compared to a 50-year old. Together with Borgar Jølstad, I have investigated if this intuition holds up for closer scrutiny. Our conclusion is that it is doubtful. Read our article here: Age and Illness Severity: A Case of Irrelevant Utilities?
The project also looks into economic and legal issues. One economic issue is how different notions of severity affect the total health we can get out of the health care system with a limited budget. Legally, the issue is to what extent different notions of severity are compatible with existing regulations.
This was just a brief presentation of the new project. More posts on specific issues will come when we publish our studies in journals. Hopefully we can soon propose some well-argued answers on how to prioritize patients according to severity. If you want to know more about our basic perspective on some of the issues that will be investigated further, you can read this article: Severity as a Priority Setting Criterion: Setting a Challenging Research Agenda.
Niklas Juth, Professor of Clinical Medical Ethics at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)
Jølstad, B., & Juth, N. (2022). Age and Illness Severity: A Case of Irrelevant Utilities? Utilitas, 34(2), 209-224. doi:10.1017/S0953820822000024
Barra, M., Broqvist, M., Gustavsson, E. et al. Severity as a Priority Setting Criterion: Setting a Challenging Research Agenda. Health Care Analysis 28, 25–44 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10728-019-00371-z
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