How much is a year of life worth?

Cancer patient Drugs for cancer patients are often very expensive

Related Stories

Thinking about the cost-benefit decisions on the affordability of drugs made by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) involves a grim question: how much is a year of life worth? How much should you, the taxpayer, be willing to pay to keep someone alive?

Earlier this week, Newsnight ran an exclusive story about new proposals that would see officials in NHS England threatening to stop buying some cancer drugs if the companies that make them do not agree to cut their prices.

Officials think that the Cancer Drugs Fund, a pot of cash to pay for drugs deemed too expensive for the normal NHS England processes, leads to them overpaying for some chemicals.

One curiosity worth exploring a bit more in this saga is how one thinks about those kinds of cost-benefit decisions, which in the UK are mostly made by NICE.

NICE uses a unit of measurement called the "Qaly" - the "quality-adjusted life year". It gauges drug effectiveness in terms of how much it would cost to give you a year of healthy life.

So a drug that cost £50,000 and gave patients an extra six months of life in good health would cost £100,000 for a full Qaly. If the same drug at the same price was much better, and led to two years of life in good health, it would cost about £25,000 per Qaly.

Patients are also deemed to "gain" Qalys for periods of better health. That means that an intervention that does not prolong life, but does improve it, could be justified for funding. That's what the "quality-adjusted" bit in "Qaly" means.

NICE aims to spend less than £20,000 to £30,000 per Qaly. That is not a hard limit; it will go almost twice as high for end-of-life drugs. NICE accepts that, at the very end, a small amount of extra time can seem to be worth a lot more to patients and families.

Cancer Drugs Fund

But NICE does impose limits. And cancer drugs, in particular, often cost much more than that and so get refused by NICE for being too expensive.

At the moment, cancer patients in England are shielded from that problem; the Cancer Drugs Fund pays for drugs for them, regardless of cost. So far, 55,000 patients have been bought drugs not offered by the normal channels.

But patients outside England have not been included. And there are two big reasons why cancer drugs are increasingly hitting the NICE cost barrier.

cost of drugs High-tech drugs may be more effective, but they only work for small numbers of people

First, the amount that NICE is willing to pay per Qaly has, in effect, been falling every year since 1999; it has not adjusted with inflation. The NHS is willing to pay less in real terms for life than it was in Tony Blair's first term.

The Qaly price is also not stunningly high. For example, there is a discrepancy between the £20,000 to £30,000 limit used ordinarily by NICE and the £80,000 per Qaly that the Home Office is willing to pay.


There are strong reasons not to raise the Qaly limit; for example, some economists think that the price is actually too high.

So NICE is approving things that are less cost-effective than lots of boilerplate treatments.

As a result, hospitals have, in some cases, had to cut more cost-effective treatments to fund new but expensive and less efficient ones approved by NICE. Raising the Qaly threshold would encourage more of that.

It would also fuel drug price inflation (and the NHS, aided by a frozen Qaly, is quietly rather good at squeezing the pharma industry for boilerplate drugs).

But the simple process of inflation in the outside world means that the conveyor belt of drugs developed recently are more likely to bust cost limits. It just costs more to make stuff than it did.

Not cheap

Second, costs for cancer drugs are high because of the changing nature of pharma: high-tech drugs are more effective, but work for small numbers of patients.

If you leaf through NICE documents, drug regimens for cancer that might help fewer than 2,000 patients a year are common. Yet they are not cheap to make. So the result is a very high cost per patient.

NICE is working on new measures for gauging effectiveness, and how the NHS responds to its rules. That might change which drugs we think are good value for money.

But some things are unavoidable; more higher cost treatments are coming through. And if we want to spend money on them, we either have to spend more overall or find other ways to cut the health budget.

Chris Cook Article written by Chris Cook Chris Cook Policy editor, BBC Newsnight

How can education's rich-poor gap be closed?

Newsnight policy editor Chris Cook examines how much difference improving badly performing schools can make to the rich-poor gap.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The more you are willing to pay for drugs the more they will cost. Drug companies are not the friend of the sick.

    Also the value of life can be counted in financial terms!

    It is delusional to think that there is an endless pot of money and that one person being saved doesn't 'cost' another.

    Especially in the face of tough decisions we need to be realistic ... we cannot save everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.


    Please stop with the lame platitude and stereotyping. Everyone puts a value on human life and you'd be crying as soon as politicians didn't look at a bottom line. Your attitude is that of someone who know matter what could not be pleased.

    By the way - some of the NHS should be sold off - maybe then it would actually work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    2. Jeremy
    Why do we think that the value of life can be measured in financial terms"

    If I can give you a drug which costs £1 million and lets you live for 5 minutes longer, is it worth it? Probably not

    If I can give you a drug which costs £10 and lets you live 10 years longer, is it worth it? Definitely

    There's a point between those two extremes where the decision changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    to #1 Shelagh Mason .
    Of course it's priceless to him, as it would be to you or me in his situation. But do we have the right to expect everyone else to share that view, or indeed, fund that cost, especially if the number of people requiring that cost cannot be quantified. Should those who are just managing to put food on the table themselves be paying for your friend. How big is the public purse

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The sad truth is nothing can be "priceless" for government spending. Is anything worth so much we should spend every penny on it, with nothing left for other health, education or welfare issues? Of course not.

    Qalys are not there to price a life, they're to help choose between different policies. Do we spend an extra £10m on cancer drugs, education, or reducing road deaths?

    How would you decide?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "How much is a year of life worth? "

    do what everyone does in this situation, stick it on ebay and see what people will pay

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.


    It seems the if people were actually well, the entire economy would fall apart.

    Just think half the doctors, nurses, managers, who go, as well as a massive reduction of profits for Big Pharma.

    Politicians would have nothing "To Be Right" about.

    No wonder there is resistance to creating the conditions for a healthy life.

    Pollution+Stress = Business

    How much is the value?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Only politicians would put a value on a human life. That is all that politicians understand - money.

    Only politicians would want to sell off our NHS to corporate vultures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    That is like saying how many pebbles is a potato worth. Why do we think that the value of life can be measured in financial terms. The whole NHS is a life preserving treatment - is that worth the funding or is the logic an info campaign to set the scene to dismantle it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have a friend who is on one of the NICE approved cancer drugs that only a limited number of people have access to. The cost was £3,000 a month when he started it over a year ago. The difference in him is unbelievable and it has extended his life significantly - so much so, that he's still working full time. How much is that worth? Priceless.


Page 8 of 8



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.