The discussion over whether community preferences have a legitimate role to play in priority setting has been highly polarised. Skeptics warn of the risk of establishing a \"dictatorship of the uninformed\", while advocates proclaim the legitimacy of the participatory process. The one group who appears not to be consulted in this debate is the citizens themselves. In this study, a convenience sample of 373 citizens attending two medical clinics in central Sydney were surveyed about whether the general public has a legitimate role to play in informing priority setting in health care. Respondents were presented with three different levels of priority setting: across health care programmes, across medical procedures, and at a global level. To assist respondents in understanding the choices and trade-offs involved, they were given information about current levels of funding and the cost-effectiveness of each alternative. Respondents were asked whether they felt the preferences of the general public should be used to inform priority setting at each level. Of particular interest was the question of whether their willingness to use public preferences depended on the level of priority setting. Respondents were also asked about who elses preferences should be used to inform priority setting at each level. The results suggest that the public overwhelmingly want their preferences to inform priority-setting decisions in health care. This was seen to be particularly important in informing decisions about how to prioritise across broad health care programmes and about the criteria to be used to allocate funds across different population groups. In contrast, the preferences of medical professionals and health service managers were rated most highly in relation to the prioritisation of different treatments and medical procedures. In most cases, however, respondents did not advocate the use of one particular groups preferences. Even when the preferences of the general public were considered most important, it was felt that any decision-making process needed to be informed by the preferences of a range of groups. The preferences of politicians were viewed as least important to processes of priority setting in health care.
Social Science and Medicine (2003) 56 (5) 1001-1012 [doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00091-6]