In proportion: approaches for displaying patient-reported outcome research study results as percentages responding to treatment



Patient-reported outcome (PRO) data from clinical trials can promote valuable patient–clinician communication and aid the decision-making process regarding treatment options. Despite these benefits, both patients and doctors face challenges in interpreting PRO scores. The purpose of this study was to identify best practices for presenting PRO results expressed as proportions of patients with changes from baseline (improved/stable/worsened) for use in patient educational materials and decision aids.


We electronically surveyed adult cancer patients/survivors, oncology clinicians, and PRO researchers, and conducted one-on-one cognitive interviews with patients/survivors and clinicians. Participants saw clinical trial data comparing two treatments as proportions changed using three different formats: pie charts, bar graphs, icon arrays. Interpretation accuracy, clarity, and format preference were analyzed quantitatively and online survey comments and interviews, qualitatively.


The internet sample included 629 patients, 139 clinicians, and 249 researchers; 10 patients and 5 clinicians completed interviews. Bar graphs were less accurately interpreted than pie charts (OR 0.39; p < .0001) and icon arrays (OR 0.47; p < .0001). Bar graphs and icon arrays were less likely to be rated clear than pie charts (OR 0.37 and OR 0.18; both p < .0001). Qualitative data informed interpretation of these findings.


For communicating PROs as proportions changed in patient educational materials and decision aids, these results support the use of pie charts.

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This analysis was supported by a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Award (R-1410-24904). All statements in this report, including its findings and conclusions, are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), its Board of Governors or Methodology Committee. Drs. Smith and Snyder are members of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins (P30 CA 006973). The PRO Data Presentation Stakeholder Advisory Board includes Neil K. Aaronson, PhD (Netherlands Cancer Institute); Patricia (A) Ganz, MD (University of California-Los Angeles and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center); Ravin Garg, MD (Anne Arundel Medical Center); Michael Fisch, MD (M.D. Anderson Cancer Center); Vanessa Hoffman, MPH (Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network); Bryce (B) Reeve, PhD (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center); Eden Stotsky-Himelfarb (Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins); Ellen Stovall (National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship); Matthew Zachary (Stupid Cancer). The Johns Hopkins Clinical Research Network (JHCRN) site investigators and staff include Ravin Garg, MD, and Steven P. DeMartino, CCRC, CRT, RPFT (Anne Arundel Medical Center), Melissa Gerstenhaber, MAS, MSN, RN, CCRN (JHCRN/Anne Arundel Medical Center); Gary Cohen, MD, and Cynthia MacInnis, BS, CCRP (Greater Baltimore Medical Center); James Zabora, ScD, MSW (Inova Health System), and Sandra Schaefer, BSN, RN, OCN (JHCRN/Inova Health System); Paul Zorsky, MD, Lynne Armiger, MSN, CRNP, ANP-C, Sandra L. Heineken, BS, RN, OCN, and Nancy J. Mayonado, MS (Peninsula Regional Medical Center); Michael Carducci, MD (Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital); Carolyn Hendricks, MD, Melissa Hyman, RN, BSN, OCN, and Barbara Squiller, MSN, MPH, CRNP (Suburban Hospital). Lastly, we are most grateful to the patients and clinicians who contributed and participated in this study.


Drs. Snyder and Smith are members of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins (P30CA006973). Financial support for this study was provided by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (R-1410-24904). The funding agreement ensured the authors’ independence in designing the study, interpreting the data, writing, and publishing the report.

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Correspondence to Elliott Tolbert.

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The Members of PRO Data Presentation Stakeholder Advisory Board are listed in Acknowledgements.

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Tolbert, E., Brundage, M., Bantug, E. et al. In proportion: approaches for displaying patient-reported outcome research study results as percentages responding to treatment. Qual Life Res 28, 609–620 (2019).

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  • Cancer
  • Patient-reported outcomes (PROs)
  • Decision-making
  • Communication
  • Educational materials
  • Decision aids