All public and private health care systems ration patient access to care. The private sector rations access to consumers who are willing and able to pay. The poor and disadvantaged have limited access to care and inadequate income protection. In public health systems, care is provided on the basis of “need,” that is, the comparative cost-effectiveness of competing treatments. This results in patients being deprived of care if treatments are clinically effective but not cost-effective. Rationing health care is ubiquitous. In both types of systems physicians have discretion to deviate from these rationing principles. This has created inefficient variations in clinical practice. These are difficult to resolve because of the lack of transparency of costs and patient outcomes and perverse incentives. The failure to remove universal inefficiency in a period of economic austerity sharpens awareness of rationing. Hopes of greater efficiency are largely faith based. Competing ideologues from the left and the right continue to offer evidence for free solutions to long-established problems. Inefficiency is unethical, as it deprives potential patients of care from which they could benefit. Reducing inefficiency is essential but difficult. The universal challenge is to decide who shall live when all will die in a world of scarce resources.

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