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Feasibility of brief psychological distress screening by a community-based telephone helpline for cancer patients and carers

Anna L Hawkes12*, Karen L Hughes3, Sandy D Hutchison1 and Suzanne K Chambers14

Author Affiliations

1 Viertel Centre for Research in Cancer Control, Cancer Council Queensland, PO Box 201, Spring Hill, Queensland, 4004, Australia

2 School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

3 School of Nursing & Midwifery, The University of Queensland/Blue Care, 56 Sylvan Road, Toowong, Queensland, 4066, Australia

4 School of Psychology, Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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BMC Cancer 2010, 10:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-10-14

Published: 12 January 2010



Up to one-third of people affected by cancer experience ongoing psychological distress and would benefit from screening followed by an appropriate level of psychological intervention. This rarely occurs in routine clinical practice due to barriers such as lack of time and experience. This study investigated the feasibility of community-based telephone helpline operators screening callers affected by cancer for their level of distress using a brief screening tool (Distress Thermometer), and triaging to the appropriate level of care using a tiered model.


Consecutive cancer patients and carers who contacted the helpline from September-December 2006 (n = 341) were invited to participate. Routine screening and triage was conducted by helpline operators at this time. Additional socio-demographic and psychosocial adjustment data were collected by telephone interview by research staff following the initial call.


The Distress Thermometer had good overall accuracy in detecting general psychosocial morbidity (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale cut-off score ≥ 15) for cancer patients (AUC = 0.73) and carers (AUC = 0.70). We found 73% of participants met the Distress Thermometer cut-off for distress caseness according to the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (a score ≥ 4), and optimal sensitivity (83%, 77%) and specificity (51%, 48%) were obtained with cut-offs of ≥ 4 and ≥ 6 in the patient and carer groups respectively. Distress was significantly associated with the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale scores (total, as well as anxiety and depression subscales) and level of care in cancer patients, as well as with the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale anxiety subscale for carers. There was a trend for more highly distressed callers to be triaged to more intensive care, with patients with distress scores ≥ 4 more likely to receive extended or specialist care.


Our data suggest that it was feasible for community-based cancer helpline operators to screen callers for distress using a brief screening tool, the Distress Thermometer, and to triage callers to an appropriate level of care using a tiered model. The Distress Thermometer is a rapid and non-invasive alternative to longer psychometric instruments, and may provide part of the solution in ensuring distressed patients and carers affected by cancer are identified and supported appropriately.