Original Research

Emotional Distress, Barriers to Care, and Health-Related Quality of Life in Sickle Cell Disease


From the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Oakland, CA


  • Objective: Emotional distress may adversely affect the course and complicate treatment for individuals with sickle cell disease (SCD). We evaluated variables associated with physical and mental components of health-related quality of life (HRQL) in SCD in the context of a biobehavioral model.
  • Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional cohort study of 77 adults with SCD (18–69 years; 60% female; 73% Hgb SS) attending an urban, academic medical center. We measured emotional distress (Patient Health Questionnaire–9, Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale), clinical complications and utilization, barriers to health care, sociodemo-graphics and HRQL (SF-36 Health Survey). We developed models predictive of physical and mental HRQL by conducting stepwise regression analyses.
  • Results: Sample prevalence of moderate to severe depression and anxiety symptoms was 33% and 36%, respectively; prevalence of impaired physical and mental HRQL was 17% and 16%, respectively. Increased symptoms of depression, older age, and ≥ 3 emergency department visits in the previous 12 months were independently associated with lower ratings of physical HRQL, controlling for anxiety and sex. Increased symptoms of depression were independently associated with lower ratings of mental HRQL, controlling for barriers to care, insurance status, lifetime complications of SCD, and sex.
  • Conclusion: Emotional distress is an important contributor to both physical and mental HRQL for adults with SCD, although sociodemographic variables and barriers to care must also be considered. Innovative approaches that integrate mental health interventions with SCD clinical care are needed.

Emotional distress, including symptoms of depression and anxiety, may adversely affect the course and complicate the treatment of chronic physical conditions [1]. For patients with sickle cell disease (SCD), a group of inherited red blood cell conditions, symptoms of depression and anxiety are more prevalent compared with rates found in the general population [2–8]. The most common symptom of SCD is acute pain events, and other complications range from mild to life-threatening, including anemia, increased risk of infection, acute chest syndrome, stroke, skin ulcers, and pulmonary hypertension [9]. Depression in adults with SCD has been associated with increased sickle cell vaso-occlusive pain events, poor pain control, multiple blood transfusions, and prescription of the disease-modifying therapy hydroxyurea [4]. Adults with SCD and comorbid depression and anxiety had more daily pain and greater distress and interference from pain compared with those who did not have comorbid depression or anxiety [10]. Patients have linked emotional distress and episodes of illness [11], and research has found a relation between pain episodes and depression [12]. In a diary study, negative mood was significantly higher on pain days compared with non-pain days [13].

Studies examining the consequences of emotional distress on health-related quality of life (HRQL) for patients with SCD are emerging. Depressed adults with SCD rated their quality of life on the SF-36 Health Survey [14] as significantly poorer in all areas compared with non-depressed adults with SCD [15]. In regression models, depression was a stronger predictor of SF-36 scores than demographics, hemoglobin type, and pain measures. In a multi-site study [16], 1046 adults with SCD completed the SF-36. Increasing age was associated with significantly lower scores on all subscales except mental health, while female sex additionally contributed to diminished physical function and vitality scale scores in multivariate models [16]. The presence of a mood disorder was associated with bodily pain, and diminished vitality, social functioning, emotional role, and the mental component of HRQL. Medical complications other than pain were not associated with impaired HRQL. Anie and colleagues [17,18] have highlighted the contributions of sickle cell–related pain to diminished mood and HRQL, both in the acute hospital phase and 1 week post discharge.


Recommended Reading

Using Patient Navigators to Help Adults with Sickle Cell Disease Obtain a Primary Care Home
Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management
Transition Readiness Assessment for Sickle Cell Patients: A Quality Improvement Project
Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management
Using Quality Improvement Methods to Implement an Individualized Home Pain Management Plan for Children with Sickle Cell Disease
Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management
Improving Care of Patients with Sickle Cell Disease and Sickle Cell Trait: The Hemoglobinopathy Learning Collaborative Series
Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management
A Quality Improvement Initiative to Improve Emergency Department Care for Pediatric Patients with Sickle Cell Disease
Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management