Clinical impression versus standardized questionnaire: The spinal surgeon's ability to assess psychological distress

Michael D. Daubs, Alpesh A. Patel, Stuart E. Willick, Richard W. Kendall, Pamela Hansen, David J. Petron, Darrel S. Brodke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Background: Psychological distress can affect spine surgery outcomes. A majority of spinal surgeons do not use standardized questionnaires to assess for psychological distress and instead rely on their clinical impressions. The ability of spinal surgeons to properly assess patients with psychological distress has not been adequately evaluated. Our hypothesis was that the clinical impressions of spinal surgeons were not as accurate as a standardized questionnaire in assessing for psychological distress. Methods: A prospective study was performed with eight physicians, four spinal surgeons and four nonoperative spine specialists, who evaluated 400 patients. All patients completed the Distress and Risk Assessment Method (DRAM) questionnaire for the evaluation of psychological distress. The eight physician subjects, blinded to the results of this questionnaire, performed their routine clinical evaluation and categorized the patients' psychological distress level. The results of the Distress and Risk Assessment Method questionnaire and the surgeons' assessments were compared. Results: In the study population of 400 patients, 64% (254 of 400) were found to have some level of psychological distress. Twenty-two percent (eighty-seven of 400) of the patients were found to have high levels of distress. Overall, the physicians' rate of sensitivity when assessing patients with high levels of distress was 28.7% (95% confidence interval: 19.5%, 39.4%) with a positive predictive value of 47.2% (95% confidence interval: 33.3%, 61.4%). Nonoperative spine specialists had a significantly higher sensitivity rate when assessing highly distressed patients (41.7% [95% confidence interval: 25.5%, 59.2%]) than surgeons (19.6% [95% confidence interval: 9.8%, 33.1%]) (p = 0.03). The sensitivity rates between experienced (greater than ten years in practice) (14.7% [95% confidence interval: 5.0%, 31.1%]) and less experienced (less than two years in practice) (29.4% [95% confidence interval: 10.3%, 56.0%]) spinal surgeons was not significant (p = 0.27). Conclusions: A large percentage of patients (64%) presenting for spine evaluation have some level of psychological distress. When compared with a standardized questionnaire designed to screen for psychological distress, spinal surgeons had low sensitivity rates to detect this distress. The routine use of a standardized questionnaire to screen for psychological distress should be considered. Level of Evidence: Diagnostic Level III. See Instructions to Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2878-2883
Number of pages6
JournalThe Journal of bone and joint surgery. American volume
Issue number18
StatePublished - Dec 15 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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