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date: 02 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) are one of the main health outcomes measures used to make health policy decisions. It is assumed that the objective of policymakers is to maximize QALYs. Since the QALY weighs life years according to their health-related quality of life, it is necessary to calculate those weights (also called utilities) in order to estimate the number of QALYs produced by a medical treatment. The methodology most commonly used to estimate utilities is to present standard gamble (SG) or time trade-off (TTO) questions to a representative sample of the general population. It is assumed that, in this way, utilities reflect public preferences. Two different assumptions should hold for utilities to be a valid representation of public preferences. One is that the standard (linear) QALY model has to be a good model of how subjects value health. The second is that subjects should have consistent preferences over health states. Based on the main assumptions of the popular linear QALY model, most of those assumptions do not hold. A modification of the linear model can be a tractable improvement. This suggests that utilities elicited under the assumption that the linear QALY model holds may be biased. In addition, the second assumption, namely that subjects have consistent preferences that are estimated by asking SG or TTO questions, does not seem to hold. Subjects are sensitive to features of the elicitation process (like the order of questions or the type of task) that should not matter in order to estimate utilities. The evidence suggests that questions (TTO, SG) that researchers ask members of the general population produce response patterns that do not agree with the assumption that subjects have well-defined preferences when researchers ask them to estimate the value of health states. Two approaches can deal with this problem. One is based on the assumption that subjects have true but biased preferences. True preferences can be recovered from biased ones. This approach is valid as long as the theory used to debias is correct. The second approach is based on the idea that preferences are imprecise. In practice, national bodies use utilities elicited using TTO or SG under the assumptions that the linear QALY model is a good enough representation of public preferences and that subjects’ responses to preference elicitation methods are coherent.

Keywords: health utilities, QALY, standard gamble, time trade-off, visual analogue scale, bias, debiasing, prospect theory, health economics

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