Clinical Review

Behavioral Health: Using Rating Scales in a Clinical Setting

Author and Disclosure Information

Despite the importance of tracking patients' progress through the use of validated clinical rating scales, there is gross underutilization of such instruments. Several readily available rating scales are brief, useful, and easy to incorporate into clinical practice.



In the current health care environment, there is an increasing demand for objective assessment of disease states.1 This is particularly apparent in the realm of behavioral health, where documentation of outcomes lags that of other areas of medicine.

In 2012, the additional health care costs incurred by persons with mental health diagnoses were estimated to be $293 billion among commercially insured, Medicaid, and Medicare beneficiaries in the United States—a figure that is 273% higher than the cost for those without psychiatric diagnoses.2 Psychiatric and medical illnesses can be so tightly linked that accurate diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders becomes essential to control medical illnesses. It is not surprising that there is increased scrutiny to the ways in which behavioral health care can be objectively assessed and monitored, and payers such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services increasingly require objective documentation of disease state improvement for payment.3

Support for objective assessment of disease derives from the collaborative care model. This model is designed to better integrate mental health and primary care (among other practices) by establishing the Patient-Centered Medical Home and emphasizing screening and monitoring patient-reported outcomes over time to assess treatment response.4 This approach, which is endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, is associated with significant improvements in outcomes compared with usual care.5 It tracks patient progress using validated clinical rating scales and other screening tools (eg, Patient Health Questionnaire [PHQ-9] for depression), an approach that is analogous to how patients with type 2 diabetes are monitored by A1C lab tests.6 An extensive body of research supports the impact of this approach on treatment. A 2012 Cochrane review associated collaborative care with significant improvements in depression and anxiety outcomes compared with usual treatment.7

Despite these findings, a recent Kennedy Forum brief asserts that behavioral health is characterized by a "lack of systematic measurement to determine whether patients are responding to treatment."8 That same brief points to the many validated, easy-to-administer rating scales and screening tools that can reliably measure the frequency and severity of psychiatric symptoms over time, and likens the lack of their use to "treating high blood pressure without using a blood pressure cuff to measure if a patient's blood pressure is improving."8 In fact, it is estimated that only 18% of psychiatrists and 11% of psychologists use rating scales routinely.9,10 This lack of use denies clinicians important information that can help detect deterioration or lack of improvement in their patients; implementing these scales in primary care can help early detection of behavioral health problems.

Behavioral health is replete with rating scales and screening tools, and the number of competing scales can make choosing a measure difficult.1 Nonetheless, not all scales are appropriate for clinical use; many are designed for research, for instance, and are lengthy and difficult to administer.

Let's review a number of rating scales that are brief, useful, and easy to administer. A framework for the screening tools addressed in this article is available on the federally funded Center for Integrated Health Solutions website ( This site promotes the use of tools designed to assist in screening and monitoring for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance use, and suicidality.11


The quality of a rating scale is determined by the following attributes.

Objectivity. The ability of a scale to obtain the same results, regardless of who administers, analyzes, or interprets it.

Reliability. The ability of a scale to convey consistent and reproducible information across time, patients, and raters.

Validity. The degree to which the scale measures what it is supposed to measure (eg, depressive symptoms). Sensitivity and specificity are measures of validity and provide additional information about the rating scale; namely, whether the scale can detect the presence of a disease (sensitivity) and whether it detects only that disease or condition and not another (specificity).

Establishment of norms. Whether a scale provides reference values for different clinical groups.

Practicability. The resources required to administer the assessment instrument in terms of time, staff, and material.12

In addition to meeting these quality criteria, selection of a scale can be based on whether it is self-rated or observer-rated. Advantages to self-rated scales, such as the PHQ-9, Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item (GAD-7) scale, are their practicability—they are easy to administer and don't require much time—and their use in evaluating and raising awareness of subjective states.

Next Article:

Fueling the Alzheimer’s brain with fat

Related Articles