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Acta Oncol. 2013 Feb;52(2):216-24. doi: 10.3109/0284186X.2012.745949.

Screening for cancer-related distress: when is implementation successful and when is it unsuccessful?

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  • 1Department of Psycho-oncology, Leicestershire Partnership Trust, Leicester, UK.



Screening for distress is controversial with many advocates and detractors. Previously it was reasonable to assert that there was a lack of evidence but this position is no longer tenable. The question is now: what does the evidence show and, in particular, when is screening successful and when is screening unsuccessful? The aim of this paper is to review the most up-to-date recent findings from randomized and non-randomized trials regarding the merits of screening for distress in cancer settings.


A search was made of the Embase/Medline and Web of knowledge abstract databases from inception to December 2012. Online theses and experts were contacted. Inclusion criteria were interventional (randomized and non-randomized) trials concerning screening for psychological distress and related disorders. Studies screening for quality of life were included.


Twenty-four valid interventional studies of distress/QoL screening were identified, 14 being randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Six of 14 screening RCTs reported benefits on patient well-being and an additional three showed benefits on secondary outcomes such as communication between clinicians and patients. Five randomized screening trials failed to show any benefits. Only two of 10 non-randomized sequential cohort screening studies reported benefits on patient well-being but an additional six showed secondary benefits on quality of care (such as receipt of psychosocial referral). Two non-randomized screening trials failed to show benefits. Of 24 studies, there were 17 that reported some significant benefits of screening on primary or secondary outcomes, six that reported no effect and one that reported a non-significantly deleterious effect upon communication. Across all studies, barriers to screening success were significant. The most significant barrier was receipt of appropriate aftercare. The proportion of cancer patients who received psychosocial care after a positive distress screen was only one in three. Screening was more effective when it was linked with mandatory intervention or referral.


Screening for distress/QoL is likely to benefit communication and referral for psychosocial help. Screening for distress has the potential to influence patient well-being but only if barriers are addressed. Quality of care barriers often act as a rate limiting step. Key barriers are lack of training and support, low acceptability and failure to link treatment to the screening results.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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