Measurement of body temperature in adult patients: comparative study of accuracy, reliability and validity of different devices

Int J Nurs Stud. 2011 Jul;48(7):872-80. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2010.11.003. Epub 2010 Dec 9.


Background and aims: We compared a range of alternative devices with core body temperature measured at the pulmonary artery to identify the most valid and reliable instrument for measuring temperature in routine conditions in health services.

Methods: 201 patients from the intensive care unit of the Candelaria University Hospital, Canary Islands, admitted to hospital between April 2006 and July 2007. All patients (or their families) gave informed consent. Readings from gallium-in-glass, reactive strip and digital in axilla, infra-red ear and frontal thermometers were compared with the pulmonary artery core temperature simultaneously. External factors suspected of having an influence on the differences were explored. The cut-off point readings for each thermometer were fixed for the maximum negative predictive value in comparison with the core temperature. The validity, reliability, accuracy, external influence, the waste they generated, ease of use, speed, durability, security, comfort and cost of each thermometer was evaluated. An ad hoc overall valuation score was obtained from these parameters for each instrument.

Results: For an error of ± 0.2°C and concordance with respect to fever, the gallium-in-glass thermometer gave the best results. The largest area under the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve is obtained by the digital axillar thermometer with probe (0.988 ± 0.007). The minimum difference between readings was given by the infrared ear thermometer, in comparison with the core temperature (-0.1 ± 0.3°C). Age, weight, level of conscience, male sex, environmental temperature and vaso-constrictor medication increases the difference in the readings and fever treatment reduces it, although this is not the same for all thermometers. The compact digital axillar thermometer and the digital thermometer with probe obtained the highest overall valuation score.

Conclusion: If we only evaluate the aspects of validity, reliability, accuracy and external influence, the best thermometer would be the gallium-in-glass after 12 min. The gallium-in-glass thermometer is less accurate after only 5 min in comparison with the reading taken after being placed for 12 min. If we add the evaluation of waste production, ease-of-use, speed, durability, security, patient comfort and costs, the thermometers that obtain the highest score are the compact digital and digital with probe in right axilla.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Temperature*
  • Humans
  • ROC Curve
  • Reproducibility of Results