The EQ-5D is a widely used generic measure of health [1
]. As it is brief and not disease specific, the EQ-5D is applied in a broad range of settings, including measurement of health status in clinical practice, population health surveillance, assessment of healthcare quality, medical decision making, and patient communication [3
]. The EQ-5D-5L expanded the response levels to five from the original three-level version (EQ-5D-3L) [10
The EQ-5D is best known for the generation of quality-adjusted life years (QALY) in cost-utility analysis, used to inform drug reimbursement and pricing decisions in some countries/regions. Utility values, which are used to estimate QALYs, are calculated for EQ-5D-5L health states by applying a societal value set. Societal value sets are preference-based scoring weights estimated using valuation studies [11
]. In valuation studies, hypothetical EQ-5D-5L health states are valued using choice-based methods, such as the time trade-off. These studies are generally conducted using representative, location/region-specific population samples. However, for many applications of the EQ-5D, population/country-specific utility scores may be unjustifiable or even introduce additional statistical biases [7
]. An alternative method to summarize the instrument, relevant when utility weights are unavailable or unsuitable (e.g., EQ-5D-Y), is a total sum score of the severity levels on each dimension. Because each item of the EQ-5D has the same number of response levels, all items and severity levels contribute equally to this additive score. This approach has been termed “equally weighted” score [13
], “unweighted” scoring approach [14
], and informally the “misery” score/index [16
]. The term “level sum score” (LSS) was used in the recently published guidebook for analyzing EQ-5D data [16
] and will be used for the remainder of this paper for consistency and clarity. The appeal of the LSS is its simplicity and consistency across populations (i.e., the same scoring system for all countries and populations).
Both the LSS and utility values are summary scores with similar limitations in interpretation; two patients may have the same summary score, but one may have extreme problems in a single dimension, whereas the other may have slight problems in several dimensions. Utility scores have found widespread acceptance over the LSS for the EQ-5D, potentially due to the rigorous development of preference elicitation.
The LSS has one major merit over utility scores when societal preference scores are unnecessary (i.e., non-economic applications): no algorithm is required to estimate the LSS, the end-user does not need to choose a specific value set to use (e.g., in multinational studies). Although previous investigations into the use of the EQ-5D LSS found substantial agreement and similar psychometric properties between the LSS and utility scores [13
], the high correlations (ICC/Rho > 0.9) do not prove LSS accurately describes HRQoL or is appropriate for statistical inference. There is a dearth of literature specifically assessing the appropriateness of the LSS to describe HRQoL.
Item response theory (IRT) comprises a large set of models used to aid the construction and evaluation of multi-item scales. In general, these models assess the relationship between a latent variable of interest (θ) and the manifest/observable response patterns of a set of items. The probability of endorsing a particular response level on items of a scale is dependent on the respondent’s θ level. Parametric IRT has been previously applied to study the EQ-5D, although not to elucidate scoring [19
]. Non-parametric item response theory (NP-IRT) approaches do not make strict assumptions about the shape of the function that describes the relationship between the response probability and the latent variable [23
]. NP-IRT investigates whether the ordering of respondents along the summary score reflects the stochastic ordering of persons along θ [23
] instead of estimating θ. If the LSS is a proxy for θ (i.e., underlying health), then ordering of persons along the summary score is the ordering of persons along θ. Mokken scaling is a scaling approach comprising of a set of methods to assess whether the data fit a set of NP-IRT models. Two nested NP-IRT models included in Mokken scaling are as follows: the monotone homogeneity model (MHM), which examines ordering of persons along θ; and double monotonicity model (DMM), which examines ordering of persons and items along θ [25
]. If EQ-5D-5L data fit the MHM or DMM, then the use of LSS to represents underlying health can be justified and interpreted. The EQ-5D-5L is a good candidate for applying Mokken scaling as all items have the same number of ordered response categories with analogous adjectives.
The aims of these analyses were to investigate whether the MHM and DMM fit EQ-5D-5L data in order to 1) determine whether the LSS can be justified for the EQ-5D-5L and 2) examine whether an interpretation can be applied to such a score.
The EQ-5D-5L items form a strong Mokken scale, fitting the MHM and thus demonstrating that LSS, an additive summary score independent of population value sets, is acceptable and meaningful for measurement. These results empirically demonstrate that the EQ-5D-5L LSS orders respondents along a latent variable of health, with higher score indicating poorer health. The MHM fit of the EQ-5D-5L data reflects the rigorous work in questionnaire development, especially with refinement of the response levels [19
]. Meijer and colleagues cautioned that sometimes strong Mokken scales are not optimal because they could reflect items covering similar or overlapping content [43
]. However, the EQ-5D is a brief scale with items covering diverse aspects of function and symptoms, so this concern is minimized.
MIIO results suggest that an interpretation of functional limitations and health symptoms can also be applied to the LSS: the low range of the score represents mainly problems with PD and AD, the lower to mid-range scores indicate additional problems with MO and UA, while the middle to higher scores reveal limitations in SC. The ordering of these items was found to be moderate. The finding that item ordering was not accurate for the healthy sub-sample reflected the observation of less variation in EQ-5D-5L responses in that subsample.
Our results empirically demonstrate what is conceptually understood: the LSS of the EQ-5D-5L orders persons by their levels of health. The relatively consistent performance of the EQ-5D-5L scale across countries is encouraging for the purpose of providing evidence to support the use of the LSS to compare the EQ-5D across countries. This is important because the EQ-5D has historically been scored using weights based on country-specific societal preferences. The LSS is used to describe data quality of valuation studies [45
] but has yet seen broader acceptance. A summary scoring function independent of population-specific value sets that is simple, psychometrically valid, and international in its applicability has tremendous advantages for researchers and population health scientists who wish to have a composite indicator of health for international comparisons using a measure available in hundreds of languages and is freely licensed and distributed by the EuroQol by non-profit organizations.
Although AD was initially retained in the scale as its Hi was above the commonly accepted cutoff of 0.3, it was excluded when the cutoff was only raised to above 0.378. Additionally, AD was found to violate MIIO in most subgroups—its IRF crosses the UA and MO IRFs at rest scores 3–4—and AD removal from the scale was suggested in backward model selection. The determination of whether an item should remain in a scale is not based solely on Hi but depends on conceptual and empirical considerations and the application of the instrument. When AD was omitted, Hs and HT improved to above 0.7 to indicate very strong person and item ordering. Therefore, in applications where scalability or item ordering is required to be strong, one could apply the LSS to only the four physical items of the EQ-5D and assess the AD item separately. Although the EQ-5D is rarely used as a diagnostic tool on the level of individual patients, item ordering can still be relevant for group level applications. For example, although patient groups with mainly physical symptoms do not suffer from anxiety/depressive problems more than the general population, the AD item may be more difficult to endorse than the physical items at moderate or more severe levels of disease (as indicated in these results). However, for conditions for which mental health is affected, the AD item could be easier to endorse than MO, SC and UA across the scale (as supported by our findings of MIIO in the subgroup with depression). The relationship between items may also be modified by other factors such as age or gender. This is an area needing future research.
IRT approaches to evaluating the EQ-5D have been relatively scarce in the literature: our results are comparable to available evidence. A recent investigation of the EQ-5D using Rasch rating scale model reported similar item ordering as our findings: PD was the easiest to endorse, UA, AD, and MO are at middle levels of difficulty of endorsement, and SC was the most difficult to endorse item [21
]. Our scalability results were similar to previously published results for the physical function subscale of the SF-36—HS
of 0.69 and HT
of 0.53 [44
IRT assumes items are indicators of a single latent variable. However, the EQ-5D was constructed using five different dimensions to create a composite measure of health status. AD conceptually measures mental health, while the other four items address physical health [48
]. A previous study revealed that when several health measures were modeled with the EQ-5D-5L, MO, SC, and UA belonged to one dimension, AD to a second, and PD to a third [51
]. However, other investigations found sufficient evidence that self-reported physical and mental health can be summarized using a single score [52
]. Recent confirmatory factor analysis found the model including all five EQ-5D-5L items to have acceptable fit statistics [47
]. These previous findings along with this study illustrate the tension between the multidimensional nature of health and summarizing health as a single latent construct. The theoretical measurement model, such as whether the EQ-5D is a formative or reflective measurement [47
], must be considered when applying scoring approaches.
A limitation of this study was that the dataset only included adult participants from Western, developed countries. If person and item ordering are dependent on how item descriptions and response categories are interpreted, then these results may not extend to other populations. Further, the data were collected via online survey panels, and such participants may differ from the general population [29
]. There is also a pressing need to conduct similar research in children. Due to ethical, methodological, and conceptual problems involved in eliciting preferences for children, the version of the EQ-5D for children and adolescents (EQ-5D-Y) does not have a preference value set [53
]. Therefore, application of the LSS may be particularly relevant for the EQ-5D-Y as its use expands.
A conceptually cohesive scale of health can be operationalized using the LSS using all five items of the EQ-5D-5L as higher LSS scores indicate worse health and more severe functional limitations. In general, lower range of the score represents mainly problems with pain, the mid-range indicates additional problems with mobility and usual activities, and middle to higher range of scores reveals additional limitations with self-care. Anxiety/depression is easier to endorse than MO or UA at the lower range of scores, but at moderate and higher scores becomes more difficult to endorse. Compared to utility scores, LSS scores have advantages depending on the application and subgroup/population. However, the scale is weak in the healthy subsample, indicating it may be less informative in such populations. More work must be done to investigate whether person and item order holds for other populations, especially for children and adolescents.
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