Self-report measurement of pain & symptoms in palliative care patients: a comparison of verbal, visual and hand scoring methods in Sub-Saharan Africa

Background: Despite a high incidence of life-limiting disease, there is a deficit of palliative care outcome evidence in sub-Saharan Africa. Providers of end of life care call for appropriate measurement tools. The objective is to compare four approaches to self-report pain and symptom measurement among African palliative care patients completing the African Palliative Care Association African Palliative Outcome Scale (APCA African POS). Methods: Patients were recruited from five services (4 in South Africa and 1 in Uganda). Research nurses cross-sectionally administered POS pain and symptom items in local languages. Both questions were scored from 0 to 5 using 4 methods: verbal rating, demonstrating the score using the hand (H), selecting a face on a visual scale (F), and indicating a point on the Jerrycan visual scale (J). H, F and J scores were correlated with verbal scores as reference using Spearman’s rank and weighted Kappa. A Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) analysis was performed. Results: 315 patients participated (mean age 43.5 years, 69.8% female), 71.1% were HIV positive and 35.6% had cancer, 49.2% lived in rural areas. Spearman’s rank correlations for pain scores were: H: 0.879, F: 0.823, J: 0.728 (all p < 0.001); for symptoms H: 0.876, F: 0.808, J: 0.721 (all p < 0.001). Weighted Kappa for pain was H: 0.798, F: 0.719 J: 0.548 and for symptoms: H: 0.818, F: 0.718, J: 0.571. There was lower agreement between verbal and both hand and face scoring methods in the Ugandan sample. Compared to the verbal scale the accuracy of predicting high pain/symptoms was H > F > J (0.96–0.89) in ROC analysis. Conclusions: Hands and faces scoring methods correlate highly with verbal scoring. The Jerrycan method had only moderate weighted Kappa. POS scores can be reliably measured using hand or face score.