The aim of this study is to investigate whether the public believes high cost patients should be a lower priority for public health care than low cost patients, other things being equal, in order to maximise health gains from the health budget. Semi-structured group discussions were used to help participants reflect critically upon their own views and gain exposure to alternative views, and in this way elicit underlying values rather than unreflective preferences. Participants were given two main tasks: first, to select from among three general principles for setting health care priorities the one that comes closest to their own views; second, to allocate a limited hospital budget between two groups of imaginary patients. Forty-one people, varying in age, occupation, income and education level, participated in a total of six group discussions with each group comprising between six and eight people.
After discussion and deliberation, 30 participants rejected the most cost-effective principle for setting priorities, citing reasons such as 'moral values' and 'a personal belief that we shouldn't discriminate'. Only three participants chose to allocate the entire hospital budget to the low cost patients. Reasons for allocating some money to inefficient (high cost) patients included 'fairness' and the desire to give all patients a 'chance'.
Participants rejected a single-minded focus on efficiency – maximising health gains – when setting priorities in health care. There was a concern to avoid strategies that deny patients all hope of treatment, and a willingness to sacrifice health gains for a 'fair' public health system.