Psychiatric morbidity and its recognition by doctors in patients with cancer

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Psychiatric morbidity in patients with cancer is high and without appropriate treatment unremitting. We assessed the ability of 143 doctors to establish the psychological status of 2297 patients during outpatient consultations in 34 cancer centres and hospitals in the UK. Prior to seeing the doctor, consenting patients completed a short self-report questionnaire (GHQ12), designed for the psychological screening of large populations. At the end of the consultation, doctors completed visual analogue scales rating patients’ distress. 837/2297 (36.4%) patients had GHQ scores suggestive of psychiatric morbidity. The doctors’ sensitivity (true positive rate) was 28.87% (SD 25.29), specificity (true negative rate) 84.79% (SD 17.44). The misclassification rate was 34.7% (SD 13.79) meaning that for 797 patients the wrong assessment was probably made. These data show that much of the probable psychiatric morbidity experienced by patients with cancer goes unrecognized and therefore untreated. Doctors need communication skills training to elicit problems during consultations. Appropriate referrals to psychological services are necessary when patients requiring help are identified and ought to be an integral part of cancer care. © 2001 Cancer Research Campaign


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Lesley Fallowfield designed the study. All authors contributed to the collection and analysis of data and the writing of the report.

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  • detection of psychiatric morbidity
  • communication

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