Critical appraisal of discriminant formulas for distinguishing thalassemia from iron deficiency in patients with microcytic anemia

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Many discriminant formulas have been reported for distinguishing thalassemia trait from iron deficiency in patients with microcytic anemia. Independent verification of several discriminant formulas is deficient or even lacking. Therefore, we have retrospectively investigated discriminant formulas in a large, well-characterized patient population.


The investigational population consisted of 2664 patients with microcytic anemia: 1259 had iron deficiency, 1196 ‘pure’ thalassemia trait (877 β- and 319 α-thalassemia), 150 had thalassemia trait with concomitant iron deficiency or anemia of chronic disease, and 36 had other diseases. We investigated 25 discriminant formulas that only use hematologic parameters available on all analyzers; formulas with more advanced parameters were disregarded. The diagnostic performance was investigated using ROC analysis.


The three best performing formulas were the Jayabose (RDW index), Janel (11T), and Green and King formulas. The differences between them were not statistically significant (p>0.333), but each of them had significantly higher area under the ROC curve than any other formula. The Jayabose and Green and King formulas had the highest sensitivities: 0.917 both. The highest specificity, 0.925, was found for the Janel formula, which is a composite score of 11 other formulas. All investigated formulas performed significantly better in distinguishing β- than α-thalassemia from iron deficiency.


In our patient population, the Jayabose RDW index, the Green and King formula and the Janel 11T score are superior to all other formulas examined for distinguishing between thalassemia trait and iron deficiency anemia. We confirmed that all formulas perform much better in β- than in α-thalassemia carriers and also that they incorrectly classify approximately 30% of thalassemia carriers with concomitant other anemia as not having thalassemia. The diagnostic performance of even the best formulas is not high enough for making a final thalassemia diagnosis, but in countries with limited resources, they can be helpful in identifying those patients who need further examinations for genetic anemia.

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