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J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Jun;98(6):E1088-96. doi: 10.1210/jc.2013-1295. Epub 2013 Mar 28.

Referral bias in defining the phenotype and prevalence of obesity in polycystic ovary syndrome.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California 90048, USA.



The described phenotype of the polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) has been primarily based on findings in a referred (self or otherwise) population. It is possible that the phenotype of PCOS would be different if the disorder were to be detected and studied in its natural (unbiased) state.


Our objective was to compare the phenotype of PCOS detected in an unselected population with that identified in a referral population.


Participants included 292 PCOS patients identified at a tertiary care outpatient facility (referral PCOS) and 64 PCOS women (unselected PCOS) identified through the screening of a population of 668 seeking a pre-employment physical. Among the women undergoing a pre-employment physical, 563 did not demonstrate features of the disorder (unselected controls). All PCOS subjects met the National Institutes of Health 1990 criteria for the disorder.


We estimated prevalence of obesity and severity of disease burden.


Referral PCOS subjects had greater mean body mass index and hirsutism score and higher degrees of hyperandrogenemia, were more likely to be non-Hispanic White (83.90%), and demonstrated a more severe PCOS subphenotype than unselected PCOS or unselected controls. The prevalence of obesity and severe obesity in referral PCOS was 2.3 and 2.5 times greater than estimates of the same in unselected PCOS and 2.2 and 3.8 times greater than estimates in unselected controls, respectively. Alternatively, unselected PCOS subjects had a prevalence of obesity and severe obesity and a mean body mass index similar to those of the general population from which they were derived.


The phenotype of PCOS, including the racial/ethnic mix, severity of presentation, and rate of obesity, is affected significantly by whether the PCOS subject arises from a referral population or through unselected screening, likely reflecting the degree of patient concern and awareness and access to healthcare.

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