Screening and referral for psychosocial distress in oncologic practice: use of the Distress Thermometer

Cancer. 2008 Aug 15;113(4):870-8. doi: 10.1002/cncr.23622.


Background: 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.

Methods: 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%).

Results: 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 > or =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.

Conclusions: 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.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anxiety / diagnosis*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Psychometrics / methods*
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis*