How much is a year of your life worth?

File photo of elderly folks pracitsing Tai Chi at a park
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Human life is so precious, it seems crass to put a price on it. How can a pile of coins, paper or gold bars match a year on Earth? Life should be, quite literally, invaluable.

Yet that is the morbid question that health services, everywhere, inevitably have to ask. They have limited money to spend on sick and dying people, and whenever a new drug becomes available, they have to make a choice: will the few stolen months, or years, be worth the money it costs?

Our gut instincts may seem obvious: we should do all that we can to buy more time for the people we love. Yet Dominic Wilkinson, an intensive care doctor and ethicist at the University of Oxford's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics recently wrote a thought-provoking article questioning these assumptions and asks us all to consider just how much we should be willing to pay for a longer life.

Intrigued, BBC Future phoned him to explore his argument, and to better understand the ways we currently calculate the price of life.

At the moment, drugs for terminal illnesses tend to be judged on two things - by how much they extend the lifespan, and the quality of life of the patient, using a scale known as the Quality Adjusted Life Year-saved (QALY). A drug that helps you live for an extra year, at half your general quality of life, would score about 0.5 years on this scale, for instance.

"Alternatively, a drug that improved your quality of life for a year from a level of half normal, to full health would also score 0.5," explains Wilkinson.

Read the full article here.

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