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Your money or your life

13 May 2014

What price a life? In the romanticised view, every life is priceless.

But, as unpalatable as it may seem, every day governments, insurers, urban planners, hospital managers and many other routinely make decisions that put a finite value on life.

In Britain, the Department of Transport is willing to spend up to $3.25 million on safety measures that would prevent a death, while the National Health Service judges that treatments that can deliver an extra Quality Adjusted Life Year for up to $54,000 could be considered good value for money.

In Australia, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee uses the benchmark of up to $50,000 for each extra Quality Adjusted Life Year when assessing the efficacy of a medicine.

Now a team of academics from the University of Warwick have set out to determine what price can be put on a life, in an effort to give policymakers a more coherent and consistent guide to valuing life.

Behavioural Science Professor Graham Loomes and his team have embarked on a four-year study into how governments and others arrive at a value for life.

“Putting a monetary value on life and health and safety is difficult, and the answers can be pushed around by the way the question is framed,” Professor Loomes said.

“At the end of four years it is unlikely we will have a simple model to be used in every situation. But what we hope to have is a model that can be adapted and used in different areas.”

He said the figure that people arrive at may be influenced by considerations such as how the money is raised, and the number can also change according to considerations of fairness, which “can be a trick thing to measure”.

“Should the same value be placed on old people as opposed to children?” Professor Loomes asked. “Or pedestrians over motorists, as they are more vulnerable. How much allowance should be made for personal responsibility?”

He said the hope was that, by understanding how people currently arrive at a figure, “we may be able to reduce bias and error and get at figures that better reflect people’s underlying values”.

Adrian Rollins


Published: 13 May 2014