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Acceptability of the Distress Thermometer and Problem List to community-based telephone cancer helpline operators, and to cancer patients and carers

Karen L Hughes1, Hilary Sargeant2 and Anna L Hawkes34*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

2 Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

3 Viertel Centre for Research in Cancer Control, Cancer Council Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

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

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:46  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-46

Published: 31 January 2011



Cancer can be a distressing experience for cancer patients and carers, impacting on psychological, social, physical and spiritual functioning. However, health professionals often fail to detect distress in their patients due to time constraints and a lack of experience. Also, with the focus on the patient, carer needs are often overlooked. This study investigated the acceptability of brief distress screening with the Distress Thermometer (DT) and Problem List (PL) to operators of a community-based telephone helpline, as well as to cancer patients and carers calling the service.


Operators (n = 18) monitored usage of the DT and PL with callers (cancer patients/carers, >18 years, and English-speaking) from September-December 2006 (n = 666). The DT is a single item, 11-point scale to rate level of distress. The associated PL identifies the cause of distress.


The DT and PL were used on 90% of eligible callers, most providing valid responses. Benefits included having an objective, structured and consistent means for distress screening and triage to supportive care services. Reported challenges included apparent inappropriateness of the tools due to the nature of the call or level of caller distress, the DT numeric scale, and the level of operator training.


We observed positive outcomes to using the DT and PL, although operators reported some challenges. Overcoming these challenges may improve distress screening particularly by less experienced clinicians, and further development of the PL items and DT scale may assist with administration. The DT and PL allow clinicians to direct/prioritise interventions or referrals, although ongoing training and support is critical in distress screening.