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The Distress Thermometer: Cutoff Points and Clinical Use

Alexandra Cutillo
Erin O’Hea
Sharina D. Person
Darleen Lessard
Tina L. Harralson
Edwin Boudreaux
ONF 2017, 44(3), 329-336 DOI: 10.1188/17.ONF.329-336

Purpose/Objectives: To establish an optimal cutoff point for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s Distress Thermometer (DT) as a screening measure to identify and address psychological distress in individuals with cancer, and to examine whether distress as measured by the DT significantly changes across the treatment trajectory.

Design: Secondary analyses of baseline data from a longitudinal parent study examining a computerized psychosocial assessment.

Setting: Three diverse comprehensive cancer centers across the United States.

Sample: 836 patients with a current or past diagnosis of cancer.

Methods: Study participants were selected from a randomized clinical trial. Patients during any stage of the cancer treatment trajectory were recruited during a chemotherapy infusion or routine oncology appointment.

Main Research Variables: The Behavioral Health Status Index and the DT were administered and compared using receiver operating characteristic analyses.

Findings: Results support a cutoff score of 3 on the DT to indicate patients with clinically elevated levels of distress. In addition, patients who received a diagnosis within the 1–4 weeks prior to the assessment indicated the highest levels of distress.

Conclusions: Providers may wish to use a cutoff point of 3 to most efficiently identify distress in a large, diverse population of patients with cancer. In addition, results indicate that patients may experience a heightened state of distress within 1–4 weeks postdiagnosis compared to other stages of coping with cancer.

Implications for Nursing: Using a brief measure of distress can help streamline the process of screening for psychosocial distress.

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