Questionnaires measuring health-related quality of life are increasingly used in international studies of medical effectiveness. It is important to know if data from these instruments are comparable across countries. We initiated a collaboration among five research groups--from the USA, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the UK--in the field of health-related quality of life in multiple sclerosis. All groups used the 36-item Short Form Health Survey. The goal of our study was to make a cross-cultural comparison. In the five countries under study the sample size varied from 50 to 134 patients with multiple sclerosis. The survey was completed by a total of 457 patients, who were heterogeneous in relation to age, duration of illness, severity and type of multiple sclerosis. There appeared to be major differences among the samples in scores on each of the eight scales. These findings may be influenced by differences in method of recruitment, demographic and disease-related characteristics, administration, and cultural factors. After having performed a number of analyses, it appeared that the differences were mainly attributable to sampling effects; however, cultural influences could not be excluded.