Understanding inconsistencies in patient-reported outcomes after spine treatment: response shift phenomena

Not uncommonly, spine surgeons and physiatrists note a mismatch between patient-reported outcome measures, where one measure might indicate a good outcome and another indicates an inferior outcome after spine treatment. This may be the result of patient characteristics that lead to changes in internal standards, values, and conceptualization of their own health-related quality of life. This can result in a ‘‘moving goal post’’ when a self-report outcome measure is used for prepost comparisons. These ‘‘response shifts’’ may obfuscate relevant changes of interest to clinicians and are meaningful and worthy of study in and of themselves.

PURPOSE: To provide a background on response shift with an emphasis on distinctions relevant to spinal interventions, both surgical and nonsurgical. To describe current methods for detecting and investigating response shift phenomena, and to propose specific hypotheses that can be tested in collaborative research. METHODS AND RESULTS: Two types of methods will be briefly described: methods that require new data collection; and methods that use recent statistical and technical advances to implement secondary analysis of existing data. Two specific testable hypotheses for spinal disorders are suggested along with suggested methods for testing these hypotheses. CONCLUSIONS: A response shift will cause the patient to use the same functional outcome report measure differently pre- and posttreatment. Response shift phenomena are likely to affect the measurement properties of standard spine outcome measures and to obfuscate differences between treatments in clinical trials and cost-effectiveness studies. They point to a need for developing strategies in clinical practice to manage response shifts so that they enhance patient well-being.