Screening and referral for psychosocial distress in oncologic practice

Use of the Distress Thermometer




The objectives of this study were to validate the Distress Thermometer (DT) in the Netherlands and to examine its correspondence with a 46-item Problem List, possible risk factors, and the wish for a referral.


A cross-sectional group of 277 cancer patients who were treated at 9 hospitals filled in the DT and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and rated the presence and severity of problems (response rate, 49%).


Receiver operating characteristic analyses identified an ideal cutoff score of 5 on the DT with a positive predictive value of 39% and a negative predictive value of 95%. The Problem List appeared to be a reliable measure. Five items on the Problem List correlated strongly with the DT, 13 items had a moderately strong correlation, 26 items were correlated weakly, and 2 items were not correlated significantly. Emotional control, nervousness, pain, and physical fitness appeared to contribute independently to the DT score. The percentage of patients scoring ≥5 (n = 118 patients; 43%) who wanted (14%) or maybe wanted (29%) a referral was significantly higher than the percentage of patients with DT scores <5 (5% and 13%, respectively) who wanted or maybe wanted a referral. Intensively treated patients reported more distress than those who only underwent surgery. No other clear risk factors for distress were identified.


The DT appeared to be a good instrument for routine screening and ruling out elevated distress. Emotional and physical problems contributed mainly to distress. Experiencing clinically elevated distress did not necessarily suggest that patients wanted a referral. Screening for distress and the wish for a referral can facilitate providing support for those patients who most need and want it. Cancer 2008. © 2008 American Cancer Society.