Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evaluating priority setting success in healthcare: a pilot study

Shannon L Sibbald1*, Jennifer L Gibson2, Peter A Singer3, Ross Upshur4 and Douglas K Martin5

Author Affiliations

1 School of Health Studies The University of Western Ontario London, Ontario, N6A 5B9, Canada

2 University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics 88 College Street Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L4, Canada

3 McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, University Health Network and University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine MaRS Centre, South Tower 101 College Street, Suite 406 Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L7, Canada

4 University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics & University of Toronto School of Public Health Sunnybrook Health Science Centre 88 College Street Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L4, Canada

5 University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics & University of Toronto Department of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, 88 College Street Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L4, Canada

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:131  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-131

Published: 19 May 2010



In healthcare today, decisions are made in the face of serious resource constraints. Healthcare managers are struggling to provide high quality care, manage resources effectively, and meet changing patient needs. Healthcare managers who are constantly making difficult resource decisions desire a way to improve their priority setting processes. Despite the wealth of existing priority setting literature (for example, program budgeting and marginal analysis, accountability for reasonableness, the 'describe-evaluate-improve' strategy) there are still no tools to evaluate how healthcare resources are prioritised. This paper describes the development and piloting of a process to evaluate priority setting in health institutions. The evaluation process was designed to examine the procedural and substantive dimensions of priority setting using a multi-methods approach, including a staff survey, decision-maker interviews, and document analysis.


The evaluation process was piloted in a mid-size community hospital in Ontario, Canada while its leaders worked through their annual budgeting process. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to analyze the data.


The evaluation process was both applicable to the context and it captured the budgeting process. In general, the pilot test provided support for our evaluation process and our definition of success, (i.e., our conceptual framework).


The purpose of the evaluation process is to provide a simple, practical way for an organization to better understand what it means to achieve success in its priority setting activities and identify areas for improvement. In order for the process to be used by healthcare managers today, modification and contextualization of the process are anticipated. As the evaluation process is applied in more health care organizations or applied repeatedly in an organization, it may become more streamlined.