Application of the stockholm hierarchy to defining the quality of reference intervals and clinical decision limits

Clin Biochem Rev. 2012 Nov;33(4):141-8.


The Stockholm Hierarchy is a professional consensus created to define the preferred approaches to defining analytical quality. The quality of a laboratory measurement can also be classified by the quality of the limits that the value is compared with, namely reference interval limits and clinical decision limits. At the highest level in the hierarchy would be placed clinical decision limits based on clinical outcome studies. The second level would include both formal reference interval studies (studies of intra and inter-individual variations) and clinical decision limits based on clinician survey. While these approaches are commonly used, they require a lot of resources to define accurately. Placing laboratory experts on the third level would suggest that although they can also define reference intervals by consensus, theirs aren't as well regarded as clinician defined limits which drive clinical behaviour. Ideally both analytical and clinical considerations should be made, with clinicians and laboratorians both having important information to consider. The fourth level of reference intervals would be for those defined by survey or by regulatory authorities because of the focus on what is commonly achieved rather than what is necessarily correct. Finally, laboratorians know that adopting reference limits from kit inserts or textbook publications is problematic because both methodological issues and reference populations are often not the same as their own. This approach would rank fifth and last. When considering which so called 'common' or 'harmonised reference intervals' to adopt, both these characteristics and the quality of individual studies need to be assessed. Finally, we should also be aware that reference intervals describe health and physiology while clinical decision limits focus on disease and pathology, and unless we understand and consider the two corresponding issues of test specificity and test sensitivity, we cannot assure the quality of the limits that we report.