Understanding the minimum clinically important difference: a review of concepts and methods

Anne G. Copay, Brian R. Subach, Steven D. Glassman, David W. Polly, Thomas C. Schuler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

969 Scopus citations


Background context: The effectiveness of spinal surgery as a treatment option is currently evaluated through the assessment of patient-reported outcomes (PROs). The minimum clinically important difference (MCID) represents the smallest improvement considered worthwhile by a patient. The concept of an MCID is offered as the new standard for determining effectiveness of a given treatment and describing patient satisfaction in reference to that treatment. Purpose: Our goal is to review the various definitions of MCID and the methods available to determine MCID. Study design: The primary means of determining the MCID for a specific treatment are divided into anchor-based and distribution-based methods. Each method is further subdivided and examined in detail. Methods: The overall limitations of the MCID concept are first identified. The basic assumptions, statistical biases, and shortcomings of each method are examined in detail. Results: Each method of determining the MCID has specific shortcomings. Three general limitations in the accurate determination of an MCID have been identified: the multiplicity of MCID determinations, the loss of the patient's perspective, and the relationship between pretreatment baseline and posttreatment change scores. Conclusions: An ideal means of determining the MCID for a given intervention is yet to be determined. It is possible to develop a useful method provided that the assumptions and methodology are initially declared. Our efforts toward the establishment of a MCID will rely on the establishment of specific external criteria based on the symptoms of the patient and treatment intervention being evaluated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)541-546
Number of pages6
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2007


  • Disability
  • Functional assessment
  • Metrics
  • Minimum clinically important difference
  • Outcomes measures


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