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The resources available for healthcare are limited compared with demand, if not need, and all healthcare systems, regardless of their financing and organisation, employ mechanisms to ration or prioritise finite healthcare resources. This paper reviews alternative approaches that can be used to allocate healthcare resources. It discusses the problems encountered when allocating healthcare resources according to free market principles. It then proceeds to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of alternative resource allocation approaches that can be applied to public health systems. These include: (i) approaches based on the concept of meeting the needs of the population to maximising its capacity to benefit from interventions; (ii) economic approaches that identify the most efficient allocation of resources with the view of maximising health benefits or other measures of social welfare: (iii) approaches that seek to ration healthcare by age; and (iv) approaches that resolve resource allocation disputes through debate and bargaining. At present, there appears to be no consensus about the relative importance of the potentially conflicting principles that can be used to guide resource allocation decisions. It is concluded that whatever shape tomorrow's health service takes, the requirement to make equitable and efficient use of finite healthcare resources will remain.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





33 - 43