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Editorial: Patient-reported outcomes – a force for clinical improvement or another way for ‘big brother’ to survey clinicians?

In the 19th century Lord Kelvin wrote, ‘If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it’. Since then clinical improvement has often been about measuring outcomes to determine what elements of healthcare are working well and what can be improved. The early studies of antisepsis and surgical technique had endpoints, which were measured by doctors deciding whether a wound infection, cancer recurrence or even death had occurred. These outcomes were usually discrete with little room for describing states between success and failure.

In this era whether the patient perceived that the treatment had been successful or not was irrelevant to the ‘success’ of treatment providing that the medical world agreed that the treatment had been a success. As treatments have become more established and the medical and pharmaceutical world has become more patient focussed, interest has increased in how patients report the outcome of treatment, often using questionnaires.

The pioneers of this work were mainly psychiatrists concerned about patient anxiety and depression [1] and clinical oncologists, aware that multimodal chemoradiotherapy treatments, which might in many cases be offered with palliative rather than curative intent, had the potential to cause a net loss in quality of life even if patients lived a short time longer on treatment.

As these patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) became more commonly used in clinical trials, their focus has extended to quite specific outcomes, such that in the current era it is unusual to see papers on LUTS or erectile function presented that do not use validated PROMs, such as the IPSS [2] or International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF) [3].

The current era of research is starting to make new use of the data sources that are useful both as absolute values relating to the severity of symptoms but also particularly in measuring change in level of symptoms. Hard outcomes, such as death from cancer, have been found to be related to patient reported quality of life at presentation [4].

Clinicians are now starting to develop the necessary skills to analyse PROMs. In this setting Talcott et al. [5] have used PROM data to identify unexpected variances in symptomatic outcome after prostate brachytherapy. This was an unexpected post hoc analysis of a difference in outcomes between the two control groups in a study. It found that there was a significant difference in outcome between patients who had received an implant in two centres, which might have been expected to have similar outcomes. Analysis of differences in the implant technique in the two institutions suggested that the use of a urethral catheter to clearly visualise the urethra might be the difference and modification of this part of the technique resulted in similar PROMS outcomes in both institutions.

This is a novel quality improvement approach, which may become more widespread as institutions more frequently collect, analyse and present their PROMS. The bio-informatics skills needed to analyse this type of data meaningfully may become a greater part of everyday practice in the modern era, especially for the ‘index’ most common operations in surgical specialities. It would be interesting to see what a similar approach would produce if variance in PROMs after transurethral prostate surgery were analysed between centres in the UK and USA. Organisations with a track record for effective data analysis and reporting such as Dr Foster will be watching this evolve.

Alastair Henderson

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, Department of Urology, Maidstone Hospital, Maidstone, Kent, UK


1 Zigmond AS, Snaith RP. The Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. Acta Psychiat Scand 1983; 67: 361–70

2 Barry MJ, O’Leary MP. Advances in benign prostatic hyperplasia. The developmental and clinical utility of symptom scores. Urol Clin North Am 1995; 22: 299–307

3 Cappelleri JC, Rosen RC, Smith MD, Mishra A, Osterloh IH. Diagnostic evaluation of the erectile function domain of the International Index of Erectile Function. Urology 1999; 54: 346–51

4 Montazeri A. Quality of life data as prognostic indicators of survival in cancer patients: an overview of the literature from 1982 to 2008. Health Qual Life Outcomes 2009; 7: 102

5 Talcott JA, Manola J, Chen RC et al. Using patient-reported outcomes to assess and improve prostate cancer brachytherapy. BJU Int 2014; 114: 511–6

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