Abstract The aim of the health outcomes movement is to reorientate health services so that the spotlight shines less on what is done and more on what is achieved. The health outcomes movement, thus far, has been most successful in addressing what appear to be technical questions relating to the measurement and analysis of health outcomes and in placing their routine use on the agenda of clinical practice and health services planning. If there is one lesson to be drawn from an economic perspective, however, it is that health outcomes are about values and not just technicalities. The need to make choices forces one to consider whether what is achieved is also what is most valued. The success of health service delivery, be it at a clinical, planning or systems level, must therefore be measured against agreed objectives. It follows that time must be taken to establish what patients and the community want from their health services and what each is prepared to give up to achieve its ends. Value judgements are unavoidable. The challenge lies not in measuring the outcomes of health interventions but in deciding what the objectives of the health system ought to be.