Accuracy and reliability of pallor for detecting anaemia: a hospital-based diagnostic accuracy study

PLoS One. 2010 Jan 1;5(1):e8545. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008545.


Background: Anaemia is a common disorder. Most health providers in resource poor settings rely on physical signs to diagnose anaemia. We aimed to determine the diagnostic accuracy of pallor for anaemia by using haemoglobin as the reference standard.

Methodology/principal findings: In May 2007, we enrolled consecutive patients over 12 years of age, able to consent and willing to participate and who had a haemoglobin measurement taken within a day of assessment of clinical pallor from outpatient and medicine inpatient department of a teaching hospital. We did a blind and independent comparison of physical signs (examination of conjunctivae, tongue, palms and nailbed for pallor) and the reference standard (haemoglobin estimation by an electronic cell counter). Diagnostic accuracy was measured by calculating likelihood ratio values and 95% confidence intervals (CI) at different haemoglobin thresholds and area under the receiver operating characteristic curve. Two observers examined a subset of patients (n = 128) to determine the inter-observer agreement, calculated by kappa statistics. We studied 390 patients (mean age 40.1 [SD 17.08] years); of whom 48% were women. The haemoglobin was <7 g/dL in 8% (95% confidence interval, 5, 10) patients; <9 g/dL in 21% (17, 26) patients and <12 g/dL in 64% (60, 70) patients. Among patients with haemoglobin <7 g/dL, presence of severe tongue pallor yielded a LR of 9.87 (2.81, 34.6) and its absence yielded a LR of 0. The tongue pallor outperformed other pallor sites and was also the best discriminator of anaemia at haemoglobin thresholds of 7 g/dL and 9 g/dL (area under the receiver operating characteristic curves (ROC area = 0.84 [0.77, 0.90] and 0.71[0.64, 0.76]) respectively. The agreement between the two observers for detection of anaemia was poor (kappa values = 0.07 for conjunctival pallor and 0.20 for tongue pallor).

Conclusions/significance: Clinical assessment of pallor can rule out and modestly rule in severe anaemia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anemia / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Hemoglobins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pallor*
  • ROC Curve
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Hemoglobins