Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) in Modern Healthcare Decision-Making

By Danélia Botes

May 26, 2024


In recent times, the healthcare industry has faced numerous challenges in balancing cost and effectiveness. One of the key tools in this balancing act is the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY). The recent passage of the Protecting Health Care for All Patients Act (HR 485) by the House of Representatives has sparked a debate on the use of QALYs. In health economics it is vital to understand QALYs, their importance, and the implications of HR 485 in the US.

Understanding QALYs

Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) were introduced in the 1970s. They provide a way to measure the effectiveness of medical treatments by combining life length and life quality. For instance, a year in perfect health is scored as 1.0, while lower scores are assigned to time spent in less-than-perfect health. This metric helps in assessing how much health is gained or lost from illness and its prevention or treatment.

QALYs capture dimensions of health that people identify as important for quality of life. These include physical and cognitive functioning, emotional health, and pain. By assessing these factors, QALYs enable health systems to compare the costs and effectiveness of treatments across various disease categories.

The Controversy Surrounding QALYs

Despite their widespread acceptance, QALYs have faced criticism. Supporters of HR 485 argue that QALYs systematically discriminate against people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. However, these arguments have been refuted by leading physicians, scientists, and policy makers. QALYs do not measure the value of human lives but focus on the value of gains attributable to health interventions.

A common misunderstanding is that QALYs devalue groups of people, such as individuals with cancer or disabilities. In reality, QALYs compare treatment outcomes within and across various conditions. They are not used to deny treatment but to identify which therapies deliver more benefits in terms of higher survival and better health-related quality of life.

The Importance of QALYs in Healthcare

QALYs have been instrumental in justifying the coverage of expensive treatments. For example, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review uses QALYs to evaluate emerging pharmaceuticals. In 2023, a report recommended coverage for gene therapy for sickle cell disease, costing up to two million dollars, based on its impact on QALYs.

QALYs are also used to justify insurance coverage for rehabilitation programs and physical therapy. By quantifying improved life expectancy and better functioning, QALYs highlight the benefits of such interventions. This analysis encourages greater investment in treatments for people with disabling conditions.

The Implications of HR 485

The passage of HR 485 could potentially compromise the evaluation of medical treatments. Despite the controversy QALYs are still being used by expert panels in the US, the UK, and the UN.QALYs provide opportunities to identify treatments that help people live longer or feel better. They also protect patients by revealing treatments that confer more harm than benefit. While QALYs should not be the only tool to guide healthcare spending decisions, dismissing this widely accepted method could be unwise.


In conclusion, QALYs play a crucial role in modern healthcare decision-making. They provide a way to measure the effectiveness of medical treatments, ensuring fair treatment for all individuals. The passage of HR 485 raises concerns about the future of healthcare evaluation in the US as well as globally. It is essential to consider the long-standing benefits of QALYs and make informed decisions that prioritise the health and well-being of the population.

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