Quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) are commonly used in cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) to measure health benefits. We sought to quantify and explain differences between QALY- and DALY-based cost-effectiveness ratios, and explore whether using one versus the other would materially affect conclusions about an intervention's cost-effectiveness.
We identified CEAs using both QALYs and DALYs from the Tufts Medical Center CEA Registry and Global Health CEA Registry, with a supplemental search to ensure comprehensive literature coverage. We calculated absolute and relative differences between the QALY- and DALY-based ratios, and compared ratios to common benchmarks (e.g., 1× gross domestic product per capita). We converted reported costs into US dollars.
Among eleven published CEAs reporting both QALYs and DALYs, seven focused on pharmaceuticals and infectious disease, and five were conducted in high-income countries. Four studies concluded that the intervention was “dominant” (cost-saving). Among the QALY- and DALY-based ratios reported from the remaining seven studies, absolute differences ranged from approximately $2 to $15,000 per unit of benefit, and relative differences from 6–120 percent, but most differences were modest in comparison with the ratio value itself. The values assigned to utility and disability weights explained most observed differences. In comparison with cost-effectiveness thresholds, conclusions were consistent regardless of the ratio type in ten of eleven cases.
Our results suggest that although QALY- and DALY-based ratios for the same intervention can differ, differences tend to be modest and do not materially affect comparisons to common cost-effectiveness thresholds.