In recent years quality of life instruments have been featured as primary outcomes in many randomized trials. One of the challenges facing the investigator using such measures is determining the significance of any differences observed, and communicating that significance to clinicians who will be applying the trial results. We have developed an approach to elucidating the significance of changes in score in quality of life instruments by comparing them to global ratings of change. Using this approach we have established a plausible range within which the minimal clinically important difference (MCID) falls. In three studies in which instruments measuring dyspnea, fatigue, and emotional function in patients with chronic heart and lung disease were applied the MCID was represented by mean change in score of approximately 0.5 per item, when responses were presented on a seven point Likert scale. Furthermore, we have established ranges for changes in questionnaire scores that correspond to moderate and large changes in the domains of interest. This information will be useful in interpreting questionnaire scores, both in individuals and in groups of patients participating in controlled trials, and in the planning of new trials.