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Healthcare Allocation for Limited Budgets

By Joshua Parker and Ben Davies

Like many public services, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is under increasing resource pressure across the service. Acute services are under strain, with every stage between dialling 999 and getting into a hospital bed taking longer. Waiting times are also up for non-urgent care: 7 million people are on a waiting list in England, while General Practitioners (GPs, the UK’s primary care physicians) are exceeding safety limits and still not managing to meet demand. These measures are only proxies; the underlying concern is that failures in these metrics betray failures of quality and safety.

In part this is due to chronic under-investment made worse by a range of factors: greater demand generated by Covid and lockdowns; increasing complexity with an ageing patient population; more medical ability due to developments in medical technologies; and staff shortages that are in part a result of the UK’s departure from the European Union. However, some may argue that the pressure is also a sign that the NHS is trying to do too much in straitened times, and perhaps even that the scope of what a health system is responsible for has been expanded too far.

The idea that we should rein in the responsibilities of a particular public sector is not confined to health. It may be tempting to categorise problems as health needs because for many people there is a health ‘halo effect’: we tolerate less inequality in health than we do in other areas, and NHS spending is often protected (at least superficially) from political cuts. There are two ways a healthcare system might limit this to produce better equilibrium between supply and demand. Both use thresholds to contract healthcare’s scope and get a firmer grip on overstretched services. One threshold borrows from the philosophical idea of ‘sufficiency’: ensuring that resources are targeted at those who are badly off, or who have severe need. To simplify, a sufficiency threshold is an imaginary boundary: those whose health is below the boundary are entitled to certain services until they reach the desired health level. We could phrase this in terms of need: somebody is unwell, so they need healthcare until the need has been satisfied. The other threshold constrains the issues that are legitimate problems for a health service. This concerns the scope of healthcare. We might think of these two thresholds as a vertical and horizonal threshold. The vertical threshold is about “how much?” and the horizontal asks “what kind of problem?”.

Some examples may help. As each threshold is, to a certain degree, socially constructed the thresholds can be flexible, shifting in response to resources, demands, changes in social attitudes, and so on. Take the vertical threshold. One way of contracting a health service is to lower this threshold meaning that the numbers of people severe enough to merit certain treatments goes down. For example, GPs might find thresholds for having referrals accepted by specialists becoming stricter, and more referrals thus being rejected. It might be that to have a referral accepted, the patient’s symptoms must be especially severe, or the likely diagnosis especially concerning, or that ever-increasing treatments must have been trialled in primary care first. Other examples could be provided: patients’ thresholds for seeking medical attention may go up meaning they present sicker; doctors’ thresholds for initiating certain treatments or investigations may also go up. The underlying point is the same however that the sufficiency threshold is being shunted down, resulting in the threshold for which people can access certain medical treatments dialling up. In turn, this helps a healthcare system spread is limited resources – in terms of healthcare professionals time, diagnostics, ambulances, treatments etc – further.

The horizontal threshold seeks to constrain the scope of a healthcare service by differentiating between ‘genuine’ health needs, and needs which are better dealt with in other ways. Implicit in this version of the argument is the idea that the health service has been over-extended. For some this might be framed as medicalisation, the march of medicine into non-medical areas. Of course, this raises some difficult questions around the concepts of health, disease, illness, disability and so forth. Nevertheless, where there is a certain fuzziness around these concepts a healthcare system under strain can use this to narrow its scope. For instance, one GP writes that loneliness, infantile colic and premenstrual mood swings are all forms of medicalisation but more importantly, that these issues gum the system up preventing healthcare professionals dealing with the ‘real’ problems. One concerning consequence of this narrowing of scope is that aspects of care within healthcare are stripped away. Perhaps infantile colic is a normal part of early life, but part of what GPs provide is not just technical knowledge in how to manage this but care in providing reassurance.

Primarily, we are aiming to show that the more theoretical world of philosophical discussions about sufficiency and need can help describe these issues facing the health service. The further question is what to make of this phenomenon. To a certain extent, reshaping this sphere of concern for a health service along the vertical and horizontal axis is inevitable and to a degree, having some flexibility in the system may also be desirable. Nonetheless, there are certain risks worth noting.

Lowering the vertical threshold straightforwardly can make people worse off. Going back to the referrals example, if GPs’ gatekeeping role is more stringent and its harder to get patients into the system, some of these patients will be made worse off by this. Furthermore, there is a difference between taking sufficiency as our ultimate aim, and as an explicit target. For instance, one common objection to the idea of sufficiency in political philosophy is that it seems to arbitrarily abandon those who sit just above a sufficiency threshold. What this tells us is that even if we take a sufficiency-based view, that does not mean that we should only focus on those who are currently below whatever threshold we have decided on; we also need to pay attention to those who are at risk of falling below it.

Pulling in the horizontal threshold also, similarly, may leave individuals worse off by restricting the scope of help that healthcare offers. There are also obvious concerns about a healthcare system so highly pressured that professionals are not able to provide aspects of care and can secure only the technical aspects of diagnosis and treatment. Importantly, providing care provides other opportunities. Much of the valuable work that GPs do is, we might say, finding needles in haystacks. Shrink the haystack and needles will be easier to find; but some needles will be left out of the search altogether. That’s not to deny that resource shortages may demand a rollback of services. But if the health service is forced to limit care either vertically or horizontally, this should not be seen as trimming an over-extended service back to its proper function. Rather, it should be seen for what it is: a hard choice to prioritise the urgent over the important.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I suppose this topic has philosophical aspects. Many topics do. Yet, I am not at all certain this blog is intended to voice matters of UK national economics and economy. Forgive me if this is uninformed and out of turn. I have not been reading here for very long. Errata: I must look up that word, straitened. Have not seen it before. I would presume, without knowing, that it means something like strained budgets, difficult financial straits or the like. Good piece of writing anyway!

  2. This article discusses the increasing pressure on the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK to reallocate their resources due to chronic under-investment resulting in staff shortages and increasing complexity of medical needs and demand due to COVID-19. The philosophical idea of ‘sufficiency’ says that for healthcare systems to balance supply and demand, resources are used for patients who have a severe need. The article proposes two possible thresholds to adjust: vertical threshold and horizontal threshold. Lowering the vertical threshold limits treatment and services such as referrals to specialists. Lowering the horizontal threshold limits the range of problems considered to be legitimate health issues such as loneliness, infantile colic, and premenstrual mood swings. I agree with the article’s conclusion that limiting either threshold would not be seen as “trimming an over-extended service” but rather “a hard choice to prioritize the urgent over the important”. This speaks towards the ethics principle of justice, which is interpreted as fair and equitable treatment of patients. With healthcare budgets being strained on a global level since the pandemic, policy makers, physicians, and insurance companies need to be called upon to re-evaluate their financial and other priorities with the needs of the people. Arguably healthcare is to aid everyone in an equitable manner so patients should be prioritized no matter their social or economic status, but that may lead to faster physician burnout and a strain on the hospital system that cannot be sustained indefinitely. One example discussed in the article was putting the most unfortunate first, but that would mean disregarding healthier but still urgently ill patients, which would violate the justice ethics principle. Further discussion around how to re-structure the healthcare system without over-working the current workforce is required for the sake of global healthcare and economy.

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