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Patients have an important role to play in communicating the impact of disease and the effectiveness of health care. Well-developed patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) can provide a clinically relevant and scientifically rigorous resource for including the patient perspective in decisions about health care and subsequent evaluation. This article will introduce readers to the field of health outcome assessment, and specifically to patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs). The reasons for measuring health, different types of PROMs and potential applications will be discussed. A second article will present important information for users of PROMs to consider when selecting and using PROMs in research, routine practice or quality assurance.