A severely fragmented concept: uncovering citizens’ subjective accounts of severity of illness

Mille Sofie Stenmarck*, Borgar Jølstad, Rachel Baker, David G.T. Whitehurst, Mathias Barra

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
48 Downloads (Pure)


Universal healthcare is constrained by national governments' finite health resources. This gives rise to complex priority-setting dilemmas. In several universal healthcare systems, the notion of severity (Norwegian: ‘alvorlighet’) is a key consideration in priority setting, such that treatments for ‘severe’ illness may be prioritised even when evidence suggests it would not be as cost-effective as treatment options for other conditions. However, severity is a poorly-defined concept, and there is no consensus on what severity means in the context of healthcare provision – whether viewed from public, academic, or professional perspectives. Though several public preference-elicitation studies demonstrate that severity is considered relevant in healthcare resource distribution, there is a paucity of research on public perceptions on the actual meaning of severity. We conducted a Q-methodology study between February 2021 and March 2022 to investigate views on severity amongst general public participants in Norway. Group interviews (n = 59) were conducted to gather statements for the Q-sort ranking exercises (n = 34). Data were analysed using by-person factor analysis to identify patterns in the statement rankings. We present a rich picture of perspectives on the term ‘severity’, and identify four different, partly conflicting, views on severity in the Norwegian population, with few areas of consensus. We argue that policymakers ought to be made aware of these differing perspectives on severity, and that there is need for further research on the prevalence of these views and on how they are distributed within populations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116046
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date23 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


  • healthcare
  • priority setting
  • Q-methodology
  • resource allocation
  • severity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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