The purpose of this study was to compare the performance of measures of health-related quality of life in a randomized controlled trial of respiratory rehabilitation versus conventional community care for patients with chronic airflow limitation. The study included 89 stable patients with moderate to severe chronic airflow limitation with measurement of health status at 12, 18, and 24 weeks. Outcomes included two disease-specific (the Oxygen Cost Diagram and the Chronic Respiratory Questionnaire [CRQ]) measures, a generic health profile (the Sickness Impact Profile [SIP]), and two utility measures (the Standard Gamble and the Quality of Well-Being index [QWB]). Of the measures, only the four domains of the CRQ (dyspnea, fatigue, mastery, and emotional function) showed statistically significant differences (P < or = 0.05) between treatment and control groups. Correlation between change in the CRQ and change in other relevant measures, including the 6-minute walk test and global ratings of change in dyspnea, fatigue, and emotional function were generally weak to moderate (from 0.19 to 0.51). All correlations between change in the QWB, SIP, and Standard Gamble and other measures were very weak or weak (up to 0.30). Correlation between change in the three generic measures were all very weak (<0.15). The results suggest that unless investigators include responsive and valid disease-specific measures of health-related quality of life in controlled trials in chronic diseases, they risk misleading conclusions about the effect of treatments on health status.