Background The understanding of appropriate or optimal care is particularly important for dementia, characterised by multiple, long-term, changing needs and the increasing expectations of people using services. However, the response of health and social care services is limited by resource constraints in most countries. This study sought to determine the optimal level, mix and cost of services for different dementia case types across the dementia continuum, and to better understand the resource allocation decision making process among health and social care professionals (HSCPs). Methods A balance of care framework was applied to the study questions and developed in three ways; firstly by considering optimality across the course of dementia and not just at the margin with residential care; secondly, through the introduction of a fixed budget to reveal constrained optimisation strategies; and thirdly through the use of a mixed methods design whereby qualitative data was collected at workshops using nominal group technique and analysed to obtain a more detailed understanding of the decision-making process. Twenty four HSCPs from a variety of disciplines participated in the resource allocation decision-making exercise. Results HSCPs differentiated between case type severity; providing 2.6 times more resources to case types with higher level needs than those with lower level needs. When a resource constraint was introduced there was no evidence of any disproportionate rationing of services on the basis of need, i.e. more severe case types were not favoured over less severe case types. However, the fiscal constraint led to a much greater focus on meeting physical and clinical dependency needs through conventional social care provision. There was less emphasis on day care and psychosocial provision when resources were scarcer following the introduction of a fixed budget constraint. Conclusions HSCPs completed complex resource allocation exercises for people with dementia, including expected differentiation across case type severity. When rationing was introduced, HSCPs did not discriminate in favour of case types with high levels of need. They did, however, support conventional home care provision over psychosocial care, although participants were still keen to provide some residual cover for the latter, especially for case types that might benefit.
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