Inter-observer variation between general and specialist gastrointestinal pathologists when grading dysplasia in ulcerative colitis

J Pathol. 2001 Jun;194(2):152-7. doi: 10.1002/path.876.


Histological dysplasia is the cornerstone of colorectal cancer surveillance in ulcerative colitis (UC). Recently, pathologists have received unfavourable media attention concerning other cancer screening programmes. The aim of this study was to determine whether colonic biopsy specimens should be examined by gastrointestinal pathologists as opposed to generalists, by examining inter-observer variation between the two groups. Fifty-one coded slides showing varying degrees of dysplasia were mailed to seven gastrointestinal and six general histopathologists. Pathologists allocated each biopsy into one of four categories without the benefit of a clinical history or an opportunity to use the 'indefinite' category that is included in the Riddell classification. The responses were analysed using kappa statistics. The overall kappa statistic for gastrointestinal pathologists was 0.30 [95% confidence interval (CI)=0.26-0.34] and for general pathologists 0.28 (95% CI=0.23-0.32). Agreement was best for high-grade dysplasia (kappa of 0.54 and 0.61 for GI and general pathologists, respectively). There was total concordance of the 13 pathologists in only four of the 51 slides (7.8%) (95% CI=0.4-15.2%). It is concluded from these results that gastrointestinal pathologists are no better than generalists when grading dysplasia in UC and that agreement is poor in both groups. There is therefore no evidence that there would be any benefit in having specialist histopathology centres concentrating specifically on the interpretation of all surveillance colonoscopy biopsies from around the UK. It must be made clear to the public that surveillance and screening programmes carry a significant rate of histological error and that perfection cannot be expected or achieved with present methods.

MeSH terms

  • Colitis, Ulcerative / pathology*
  • Colon / pathology*
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Gastroenterology / standards*
  • Humans
  • Observer Variation
  • Pathology, Clinical / standards*
  • Rectum / pathology*