Disparity between general symptom relief and remission criteria in the positive and negative syndrome scale (PANSS): A post-treatment bifactor item response theory model

Ariana E. Anderson*, Steven P. Reise, Stephen R. Marder, Maxwell Mansolf, Carol Han, Robert M. Bilder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Objective: Total scale scores derived by summing ratings from the 30-item PANSS are commonly used in clinical trial research to measure overall symptom severity, and percentage reductions in the total scores are sometimes used to document the efficacy of treatment. Acknowledging that some patients may have substantial changes in PANSS total scores but still be sufficiently symptomatic to warrant diagnosis, ratings on a subset of 8 items, referred to here as the “Remission set,” are sometimes used to determine if patients’ symptoms no longer satisfy diagnostic criteria. An unanswered question remains: is the goal of treatment better conceptualized as reduction in overall symptom severity, or reduction in symptoms below the threshold for diagnosis? We evaluated the psychometric properties of PANSS total scores, to assess whether having low symptom severity post-treatment is equivalent to attaining Remission.Design: We applied a bifactor item response theory (IRT) model to post-treatment PANSS ratings of 3,647 subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia assessed at the termination of 11 clinical trials. The bifactor model specified one general dimension to reflect overall symptom severity, and five domain-specific dimensions. We assessed how PANSS item discrimination and information parameters varied across the range of overall symptom severity (θ), with a special focus on low levels of symptoms (i.e., θ<-1), which we refer to as “Relief” from symptoms. A score of θ=-1 corresponds to an expected PANSS item score of 1.83, a rating between “Absent” and “Minimal” for a PANSS symptom. Results: The application of the bifactor IRT model revealed: (1) 88% of total score variation was attributable to variation in general symptom severity, and only 8% reflected secondary domain factors. This implies that a general factor may provide a good indicatoof symptom severity, and that interpretation is not overly complicated by multidimensionality; (2) Post-treatment, 534 individuals (about 15% of the whole sample) scored in the “Relief” range of general symptom severity, but more than twice that number (n = 1351) satisfied Remission criteria (37%). 2 in 3 Remitted patients had scores that were not in a low symptom range (corresponding to Absent or Minimal item scores); (3) PANSS items vary greatly in their ability to measure the general symptom severity dimension; while many items are highly discriminating and relatively “pure” indicators of general symptom severity (delusions, conceptual disorganization), others are better indicators of specific dimensions (blunted affect, depression). The utility of a given PANSS item for assessing a patient depended on the illness level of the patient. Conclusion: Satisfying conventional Remission criteria was not strongly associated with low levels of symptoms. The items providing the most information for patients in the symptom Relief range were DelusionsPreoccupation, Suspiciousness Persecution, Unusual Thought Content, Conceptual Disorganization, Stereotyped Thinking, Active Social Avoidance, and Lack of Judgment and Insight. Lower scores on these items (item scores ≤2) were strongly associated with having a low latent trait θ or experiencing overall symptom relief. The inter-rater agreement between Remission and Relief subjects suggested that these criteria identified different subsets of patients. Alternative subsets of items may offer better indicators of general symptom severity and provide better discrimination (and lower standard errors) for scaling individuals and judging symptom relief, where the “best” subset of items ultimately depends on the illness range and treatment phase being evaluated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-53
Number of pages13
JournalInnovations in Clinical Neuroscience
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Nov 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Item response theory
  • Remission
  • Schizophrenia
  • Symptom relief

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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