A Matter of Perspective (Jul-07)

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Are opinions on whether health care funding should be rationed dependent on an individual's perspective? Imagine that there are two regional health systems, each responsible for providing health care for one million people. The Director of each system has enough money to fund only one of two medical treatment programs. The health systems have the same limited budget and are the same in every way except for the treatment program that each Director decides to fund.

One Director decides to fund Program A, which will cure 100 people with moderate shortness of breath. People with this condition have shortness of breath when walking an average block with no hills.
The other Director decides to fund Program B, which will cure 100 people with severe shortness of breath. People with this condition have shortness of breath even when walking only short distances, such as from the bedroom to the bathroom.
Which Director made the better decision?
  • Director who funded Program A (moderate shortness of breath)
  • Director who funded Program B (severe shortness of breath)
  • Both choices were equally good
If you chose either the Program A Director or the Program B Director, how may how many people would have to be cured of other condition to make the two choices seem equally good to you? Reminder: Program A and Program B would both cure 100 people.
Next, please check your responses to these statements:
"The thought of only one group of people being able to get treatment while other people may not be able to get treatment makes me feel outraged."
  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree
"I believe that there are situations where health care has to be rationed because sometimes there are not enough financial resources (eg, money for health care programs)."
  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree

How do your answers compare?

Before we analyze your responses to the scenario, we'd like to offer some background information about this area of research.

In an environment of scarce health care resources, policy makers and leaders of health care organizations often must make difficult choices about funding treatment programs. Researchers find out how people value different health states by asking questions like the ones you've answered. This area of research is called "person tradeoff elicitation."

The problem is that many people refuse to give a comparison value, saying that both choices are equal ("equivalence refusal") or saying that millions of people would have to be cured of one condition to be equal to the other treatment choice ("off-scale refusal"). Sometimes these responses are appropriate, but many times these responses seem inappropriate. Furthermore, the frequency of these decision refusals depends on how the questions are asked.

What were the specific goals of this research study?

In an article published by Laura J. Damschroder, Todd R. Roberts, Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter A. Ubel (Medical Decision Making, May/June 2007), the authors explored whether people would be more willing to make health care tradeoffs if they were somewhat removed from the decision making role. As part of their study, the researchers asked people to comment on choices made by others, in this case, the Directors of two identical regional health systems. For this study, the researchers anticipated that asking participants to judge someone else's decision would make it easier for the participants to compare the benefit of curing two conditions that have a clear difference in severity. The researchers thought that adopting a perspective of judging someone else's decision might lessen the participants' feeling about making "tragic choices" between groups of patients and hence result in fewer refusals to choose. The researchers also hypothesized that respondents taking a non-decision-maker perspective would be more detached and would feel less outraged about the idea of having to ration medical treatments. As we will explain below, the researchers were surprised to learn that their hypotheses were wrong!

What did this research study find?

Some people surveyed in this study were asked to decide for themselves which of two treatment programs for shortness of breath should be funded. Others, like you, were asked which health system Director made the better decision about treatment programs for shortness of breath. Significantly, the respondents who had the evaluator perspective had nearly two times higher odds of giving an equivalence refusal�that is, saying that the decisions were equal. Why did this evaluator perspective fail to decrease these decision refusals? One possibility is that respondents did not feel as engaged in the decision. It's also possible that respondents felt that they were judging the Directors who made the decision rather than the decision itself. Or maybe respondents didn't want to second-guess the decisions of people they perceived as experts. The researchers predicted that people who had to make the decision about treatment themselves would be more outraged about the idea of rationing health care treatments. This prediction was also wrong! 69% of all respondents agreed that rationing is sometimes necessary, and yet 66% of all respondents also felt outraged about the idea of having to ration. The percentages were nearly the same for those deciding directly and those evaluating the decision of Directors of health care systems.

What conclusions did the researchers draw?

The researchers in this study concluded that perspective definitely matters in making hard choices about allocation of health care resources. They attempted to increase people's willingness to make tradeoffs by changing their perspective from decision maker to evaluator of someone else's decision. These attempts backfired. Contrary to the researchers' predictions, people were dramatically more likely to give equivalence refusals when they were assigned to a non-decision-maker perspective. The researchers also concluded that the degree of emotion aroused by health care rationing also plays a role in people's willingness to make tradeoffs.

So, how does your response to the Directors' decision in the shortness-of-breath scenario compare with the responses of the people surveyed for this study?

If you responded that the choices of both Directors were equal, you were not alone! Overall, with this scenario and related ones, 32% of respondents in the published study refused to make the tradeoff. These were the equivalence refusals. In comparison, 21% of respondents in the study who were asked to decide themselves between two patient groups gave an equivalence refusal.

If you made a choice of Directors in the shortness-of-breath scenario, how does your numerical answer compare with the responses of people surveyed for this study?

In the study, 15% of respondents gave a number of one million or more as the point at which the Directors' decisions about the two treatment programs would be equal. These were the off-scale refusals. In comparison, 19% of respondents in the study who were asked to decide themselves about the two programs gave an off-scale refusal.

What about your level of outrage?

In the study, 69% of respondents agreed that rationing of health care treatment is sometimes necessary, but 66% also felt outraged about the idea of having to ration. These attitudes were the same whether the respondents were assigned an evaluator perspective (as you were) or a direct decision maker perspective.

Read the article:

Why people refuse to make tradeoffs in person tradeoff elicitations: A matter of perspective?
Damschroder LJ, Roberts TR, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. Medical Decision Making 2007;27:266-288.