Medical science continues to push at the boundaries of life and death with new drugs and technologies that can extend life or improve health. But these advances come at a cost. And that inevitably raises difficult questions about whether public health systems should pay for such treatments – and, if so, how much. For example, should the NHS fund the new breast cancer drug Kadycla which comes with a £90,000 price tag per patient?
Some countries make these difficult decisions by looking at the cost-effectiveness of new treatments. How much does the new treatment cost and how effective is it compared with existing treatments? Treatments may help patients live longer, or they may improve a patient’s quality of life (or both). Kadycla appears to extend life by about six months.
One mathematical way of combining these elements uses the concept of a Quality-Adjusted Life Year saved, or QALY. As an example, a treatment that extends life for one year but at a “quality” level of half normal it said to save 0.5 QALY. When treatments are assessed this way, health systems can then use a threshold to work out a maximum cost that is affordable. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) uses a threshold of £20,000-£30,000 for each Quality-Adjusted Life Year saved (QALY). This would mean (assuming full quality of life), that the NHS would be prepared to pay £10,000-15,000 for a course of Kadycla.
As the example of this drug illustrates, medical treatments towards the end of life can be very expensive and may not extend or improve life very much.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.