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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The reliability of the twelve-item general health questionnaire (GHQ-12) under realistic assumptions

Matthew Hankins

Author Affiliations

King's College London, Department of Psychology (at Guy's), Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK

Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Brighton & Sussex Medical School, Brighton, UK

Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, UK

BMC Public Health 2008, 8:355  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-355

Published: 14 October 2008

Abstract

Background

The twelve-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) was developed to screen for non-specific psychiatric morbidity. It has been widely validated and found to be reliable. These validation studies have assumed that the GHQ-12 is one-dimensional and free of response bias, but recent evidence suggests that neither of these assumptions may be correct, threatening its utility as a screening instrument. Further uncertainty arises because of the multiplicity of scoring methods of the GHQ-12. This study set out to establish the best fitting model for the GHQ-12 for three scoring methods (Likert, GHQ and C-GHQ) and to calculate the degree of measurement error under these more realistic assumptions.

Methods

GHQ-12 data were obtained from the Health Survey for England 2004 cohort (n = 3705). Structural equation modelling was used to assess the fit of [1] the one-dimensional model [2] the current 'best fit' three-dimensional model and [3] a one-dimensional model with response bias. Three different scoring methods were assessed for each model. The best fitting model was assessed for reliability, standard error of measurement and discrimination.

Results

The best fitting model was one-dimensional with response bias on the negatively phrased items, suggesting that previous GHQ-12 factor structures were artifacts of the analysis method. The reliability of this model was over-estimated by Cronbach's Alpha for all scoring methods: 0.90 (Likert method), 0.90 (GHQ method) and 0.75 (C-GHQ). More realistic estimates of reliability were 0.73, 0.87 and 0.53 (C-GHQ), respectively. Discrimination (Delta) also varied according to scoring method: 0.94 (Likert method), 0.63 (GHQ method) and 0.97 (C-GHQ method).

Conclusion

Conventional psychometric assessments using factor analysis and reliability estimates have obscured substantial measurement error in the GHQ-12 due to response bias on the negative items, which limits its utility as a screening instrument for psychiatric morbidity.