’Need’ is often used to denote a drive or some inner state that initiates a drive (e.g. ‘humans need to sleep’ or ‘rabbits need to burrow’). Here ‘need’ refers to a motivational force instigated by a state of disequilibrium or tension set up in an organism because of a particular lack.
Needs as goals and strategies
The word ‘need’ is also used explicitly or implicitly to refer to a particular category of goals which are believed to be universalisable. Examples would be: ‘This person needs (and should have the goal of) more protein’ or ‘These families need (and should have the goal of) proper shelter this winter’.
Needs, relativism and mortality
Yet many questions still remain concerning the objectivity of needs. What needs, if any, should all individuals try to satisfy if they are to be said to be acting in their interests? So far, all that we have shown is that there is a commonly employed distinction between needs and wants which is rooted in the belief that there are some goals which are instrumentally and universally linked to the avoidance of serious harm, while there are others which are not. Thus, the coherence of the distinction between needs and wants – and of the belief that it can be made in any sort of objection way – is predicated on some agreement about what serious harm itself is. But for this agreement to exist – for use to be able to recognise the harm – there must also be a consensus about the human condition when it is normal, flourishing and unharmed.
A wide variety of definitions of ‘need’ has been developed. Although each was intended to improve service delivery to the population, ambiguity increased to such an extent that “it may be an illusion to suppose that there might ever be a consensus about the meaning of needs.
Economists prefer to define need as capacity to benefit, which means thae capacity for a patient to benefit from health care. Even if someone is sick, they are not in need of health care unless they could benefit from it. This type of need must be distinguished from need that is related to a person’s health state rather than health care, so that it is independent of whether that state can be improved through the provision of health care. Moreover, the generally preferred view of economists is that any definition of need relies on expert judgement of the likely benefits of treatment; alternative definitions refer to individuals’ perceptions of their needs, which depend on their knowledge of health care, their knowledge of health, and their expectations about what is ‘normal’ with respect ot health. Of course, experts do not always agree and their dugements may change over time, so even this more rigorous definition of need is not at all straightforward to apply.
Economists commonly define need as the capacity for a patient to benefit from health care.