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2023/24 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

IDEA3306 Distributive Justice and Scarce Medical Resources

15 creditsClass Size: 30

Module manager: Dr Sean Sinclair

Taught: 1 May to 31 July View Timetable

Year running 2023/24

Module replaces


This module is not approved as a discovery module


The aim of this module is to introduce students to issues concerning the fair allocation of resources in health care. The module examines some central views about the just/fair allocation of benefits and burdens in society, and their implications for the just/fair allocation of health care.

As a preamble, consider the following two claims. First of all the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself, his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.’ Secondly, again in 1948, the NHS was created. The intention claimed to lie behind its creation was: ‘to ensure that everybody in the country irrespective of means, age, sex and occupation shall have equal opportunity to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.’

Do either of these declarations or claims express a reasonable conception of what justice in healthcare allocation requires? If not, what is a reasonable conception of justice in healthcare? As we shall see in the module, the question of the just allocation of resources in healthcare can arise at the macro-level. What resources should be given to health, as opposed to allocation to education or security, or left for private expenditure? And how should resources allocated to health care be divided between primary and secondary care, and between specialisms? But they also arise at the bedside – how should we justly determine which individual patients have access to scarce resources, for example in an ICU, or in organ transplantation?

So this module examines these and a number of other related questions, for example:

- Is the aim of the NHS an improper aim for the state to take upon itself?
- Given the current demands on health and allied services, how should priorities be set in a way that is fair?
- Are QALYs a helpful tool in fairly allocating healthcare resources?
- Should the young be given preference over the old?
- Is clinical need the only fair basis on which to select whom to treat, and the order of priorities?
- What ‘treatments’ might be reasonably excluded from the NHS budget as inessential?

On completion of this module, students should be able to:
Critically evaluate different theories of justice and equality;
Understand their implications for rights of access to health care;
Critically evaluate different criteria for prioritising patients and types of treatments


Topics such as:
Justice and equality; rights to health care; who should pay; costs and benefits; needs and luxuries; rationing and QALY's; public consultations and people's juries; evidence based medicine - implications for access; 'presentism'.

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours134.00
Total Contact hours16.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)150.00

Private study

Detailed study of required readings plus advance preparation of discussion questions for seminars. Independent reading and research for the preparation of assessed essay(s).

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Essay plan (400 words)

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay3,000 words100.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 07/02/2024 11:40:27


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