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Int J Technol Assess Health Care. 2006 Winter;22(1):1-9.

Equity-efficiency trade-offs in health technology assessment.

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Centre for Health Economics, University of York, UK.


Health technology assessment (HTA) currently focuses on efficiency, rather than equity, on the basis that its primary objective is to maximize population health. Yet a strict cost-effectiveness approach sometimes conflicts with important equity concerns, such as the reduction of socioeconomic health inequalities. Managing such equity-efficiency trade-offs on the basis of intuition is unsatisfactory in a democracy, as it arouses suspicions of special pleading and favoritism toward vested interests. Over the next few decades, therefore, decision making may progress through up to three further stages of development observed historically in other areas of resource allocation. Stage two involves case law, limited to principles distilled from precedent. Stage three involves codification, seeking to generalize these principles without specifying their relative weights. Finally, at stage four, quantitative trade-offs are incorporated into a formula. At stage four, deliberation centers on adjustments to the formula, which would then be applied impartially, transparently, and fair-mindedly to all future decisions. Methods already exist for valuing equity-efficiency trade-offs, based on established methodological principles for valuing trade-offs between different dimensions of health. Early findings indicate that the general public thinks that social class inequalities are more inequitable than those by smoking status, with inequalities between the sexes somewhere in between. Relative weights can be calculated from these data, although the data are not yet comprehensive enough to do this credibly for current policy purposes. In the mean time, the equity-efficiency trade-offs suggested by current decisions can be estimated using standard cost-effectiveness analysis. This is because every departure from a strict cost-effectiveness approach has an opportunity cost. The size of that opportunity cost is a test of how much weight a particular equity concern is deemed to merit.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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