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Objectives To examine the frequency and quality of reporting on quality of life in randomised controlled trials.Design Search of the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register 1980 to 1997 to identify trials from all disciplines, from oncology, and from cardiovascular medicine that reported on quality of life.Assessment of abstracts from articles published from 1993 to 1996. Assessment of a sample of full reports with a standardised instrument.Main outcome measures Prevalence of reporting on quality of life.Conditions and interventions studied in trials reporting on quality of life. Quality of reporting on quality of life.Results During 1980-97 reporting on quality of life increased from 0.63% to 4.2% for trials from all disciplines, from 1.5% to 8.2% for cancer trials, and from 0.34% to 3.6% for cardiovascular trials. Of 364 abstracts, 65% reported on drug interventions. Of a sample of 67 full reports, authors of 48 (72%) used 62 established quality of life instruments. In 15 reports (22%) authors developed their own measures, and in 2 (3%) methods were unclear. Response rates were given in 38 (57%), and complete reporting on all items and scales occurred in 31 (46%).Conclusions Less than 5% of all randomised controlled trials reported on quality of life, and this proportion was below 10% even for cancer trials.A plethora of instruments was used in different studies, and the reporting of methods and results was often inadequate. Standards for the measurement and reporting of quality of life in clinical trials research need to be developed.