Identification of small lung nodules at autopsy: implications for lung cancer screening and overdiagnosis bias

Lung Cancer. 2001 Jul;33(1):11-6. doi: 10.1016/s0169-5002(01)00190-8.


Purpose: Unsuspected cases of lung cancer are reported to be uncommon in autopsy series, and these data have been used to suggest that indolent tumors are rare and that overdiagnosis bias is not an important factor in lung cancer screening. The purpose of this study was to determine if a retrospective autopsy review is indeed accurate in identifying all small lung nodules on CT, and thus provide a true estimate of unsuspected lung tumors.

Materials and methods: We identified all 1047 patients who had an autopsy at our institution from 1994 to 1998. We then reviewed the patients radiology records and found 187 patients with a thoracic CT within 2 months of the postmortem examination. All 187 CT reports were reviewed in order to identify patients with at least one pulmonary nodule. CT studies with reports that described a nodule(s) were then re-reviewed to confirm presence and location of the nodule(s). The CT findings were than compared to the autopsy report to determine if the postmortem examination indeed found the nodule(s).

Results: 28 autopsy patients had at least one pulmonary nodule identified on their thoracic CT no more than 2 months before death. Nineteen patients (68%) had nodule(s) recorded on the autopsy report, two ( approximately 10%) of which proved to have undiagnosed squamous cell carcinoma. Nine patients (22%) had no mention of pulmonary nodules seen on the CT recorded on their autopsy report.

Conclusions: This study suggests autopsies do not identify all small pulmonary nodules found at CT. The true incidence of clinically insignificant lung cancer is thus uncertain, and overdiagnosis bias in lung cancer screening may be more important than previously recognized.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autopsy
  • Bias
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Male
  • Mass Screening*
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed