Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Dreaded QALY

I mentioned some time back that Professor Quentin Summerfield would be giving a twilight lecture on the subject of bilateral implants in the context of the British National Health Service. It took place on the 25th January - there is a rather crumbly recording of it on the Ear Foundation's Recent Twilight Lectures page.

It is a balanced, highly rational and necessarily impersonal description of the factors that influence who should get a cochlear implant (or two) and how the decisions are arrived at. Prof. Summerfield gets quite mathematical as you might imagine and it might take you a couple of run-throughs or frequent use of the pause button but he is heavily involved in this stuff - you can safely assume that he knows what he's talking about.

Much of the discussion centres around the QALY - the Quality Adjusted Life Year - which is an attempt to measure the impact of medical interventions on both the quantity and quality of life resulting from said intervention. By throwing into the equation the cost of the interventions, the 'Powers That Decide Such Things' can make informed choices about which procedures to fund and to whom, based on their cost-effectiveness, i.e. it is the cost per QALY that is used to prioritise across treatments with a threshold of €50,000/QALY as the upper limit for consideration. The more QALYs you can create on your budget, the better.

Single cochlear implants to both children and adults, you'll be glad to hear, fall safely within the threshold for cost-effectiveness but bilaterals for adults most definitely do not. The cost-effectiveness of bilaterals for children, you'll notice if you get that far in the lecture, is unknown. Beyond positing that its likely to be higher for children than adults because of the expected impact on educational costs and relative lifespan, Summerfield cannot say although he does go on to describe the research that is about to start in the UK that will inform the calculation.

Why am I revisiting this and what does it mean for Tom? Well, I can't get this QALY thing out of my head and it has reawakened the medical researcher in me that has lain dormant for a few months. Exploring, for example, how a measure is put on life quality (there are numerous ways apparently, including the EQ-5D) is one new preoccupation. For the most part though, I just think about what impact the research and ongoing NICE project will have on us and Tom's future.

Something else that's unclear, unresolved and needs waiting for... ain't that just the hardest part?

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