Setting standards for severity of common symptoms in oncology using the PROMIS item banks and expert judgment

David Cella*, Seung Choi, Sofia Garcia, Karon F. Cook, Sarah Rosenbloom, Jin Shei Lai, Donna Surges Tatum, Richard Gershon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Background: Although the use of patient-reported outcome measures (PROs) has increased markedly, clinical interpretation of scores remains lacking. We developed a method to identify clinical severity thresholds for pain, fatigue, depression, and anxiety in people with cancer. Methods: Using available Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) item bank response data collected on 840 cancer patients, symptom vignettes across a range of symptom severity were developed and placed on index cards. Cards represented symptom severity at five-point intervals differences on the T score metric [mean = 50; standard deviation (SD) = 10]. Symptom vignettes for each symptom were anchored on these standardized scores at 0.5 SD increments across the full range of severity. Clinical experts, blind to the PROMIS score associated with each vignette, rank-ordered the vignettes by severity, then arrived at consensus regarding which two vignettes were at the upper and lower boundaries of normal and mildly symptomatic for each symptom. The procedure was repeated to identify cut scores separating mildly from moderately symptomatic, and moderately from severely symptomatic scores. Clinician severity rankings were then compared to the T scores upon which the vignettes were based. Results: For each of the targeted PROs, the severity rankings reached by clinician consensus perfectly matched the numerical rankings of their associated T scores. Across all symptoms, the thresholds (cut scores) identified to differentiate normal from mildly symptomatic were near a T score of 50. Cut scores differentiating mildly from moderately symptomatic were at or near 60, and those separating moderately from severely symptomatic were at or near 70. Conclusions: The study results provide empirically generated PROMIS T score thresholds that differentiate levels of symptom severity for pain interference, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. The convergence of clinical judgment with self-reported patient severity scores supports the validity of this methodology to derive clinically relevant symptom severity levels for PROMIS symptom measures in other settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2651-2661
Number of pages11
JournalQuality of Life Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014


  • Cancer
  • Patient-reported outcomes
  • Standard setting
  • Symptom severity levels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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