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Measurement of quality of life is becoming increasingly relevant to controlled clinical trials. Two basic types of instrument are available: generic instruments, which include health profiles and utility measurements based on the patient's preferences in regard to treatment and outcome; and specific instruments, which focus on problems associated with individual diseases, patient groups or areas of function. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive; each has its strengths and weaknesses and may be suitable under different circumstances. We surveyed 75 randomized trials published in three medical journals in 1986 and categorized them according to the importance of quality of life as a measure of outcome and the extent to which quality of life was actually measured. Although a number of the investigators used quality-of-life instruments in a sophisticated manner, in only 10 of 55 trials in which the measurement had been judged to be crucial or important were instruments with established validity and responsiveness used. We conclude that although accurate measurement of quality of life in randomized trials is now feasible it is still not widely done. Using the framework we have outlined, investigators can choose generic or specific instruments according to the purpose and the focus of their trial.