Terminal Care and the Value of Life Near Its End

January 2010
Tomas Philipson, Gary S. Becker, Dana Goldman, Kevin Murphy

Medical care at the end of life, estimated to contribute up to a quarter of US health care spending, often encounters skepticism from payers and policy makers who question its high cost and often minimal health benefits. It seems generally agreed upon that medical resources are being wasted on excessive care for end-of-life treatments that often only prolong minimally an already frail life. However, though many observers have claimed that such spending is often irrational and wasteful, little explicit and systematic analysis exists on the incentives that determine end of life health care spending. There exists no positive theory that attempts to explain the high degree of end-of life spending and why differences across individuals, populations, or time occur in such spending. This paper attempts to provide the first rational and systematic analysis of the incentives behind end of life care. The main argument we make is that existing theoretical and empirical analysis of the value of life do not apply, and often under-values, the value of life near its end and terminal care. We argue that several factors drive up the value of life near its end including the low opportunity cost of medical spending near ones death, the value of hope including living into new innovations, and potential positive effect of on the value of life from being frail. We calibrate the ex-post value of hope associated with treatments for HIV patients to be as much as 4 times as high as standard per-capita estimates of treatment effects and as many as two and a half times as high as aggregate values across all cohorts.