A comparison of dermatologists' and primary care physicians' accuracy in diagnosing melanoma: a systematic review

Arch Dermatol. 2001 Dec;137(12):1627-34. doi: 10.1001/archderm.137.12.1627.


Objective: To compare the accuracy of dermatologists and primary care physicians (PCPs) in identifying pigmented lesions suggestive of melanoma and making the appropriate management decision to perform a biopsy or to refer the patient to a specialist.

Data sources: Studies published between January 1966 and October 1999 in the MEDLINE, EMBASE, and CancerLit databases; reference lists of identified studies; abstracts from recent conference proceedings; and direct contact with investigators. Medical subject headings included melanoma, diagnosis, screening, primary care, family practitioner, general practitioner, internal medicine, dermatologist, and skin specialist. Articles were restricted to those involving human subjects.

Study selection: Studies that presented sufficient data to determine the sensitivity and specificity of dermatologists' or PCPs' ability to correctly diagnose lesions suggestive of melanoma and to perform biopsies on or refer patients with such lesions.

Data extraction: Two reviewers independently abstracted data regarding the sensitivity and specificity of the dermatologists and PCPs for diagnostic and biopsy or referral accuracy. Disagreements were resolved by discussion. The quality of the studies was also evaluated.

Data synthesis: Thirty-two studies met inclusion criteria; 10 were prospective studies. For diagnostic accuracy, sensitivity was 0.81 to 1.00 for dermatologists and 0.42 to 1.00 for PCPs. None of the studies reported specificity for dermatologists; one reported specificity for PCPs (0.98). For biopsy or referral accuracy, sensitivity ranged from 0.82 to 1.00 for dermatologists and 0.70 to 0.88 for PCPs; specificity, 0.70 to 0.89 for dermatologists and 0.70 to 0.87 for PCPs. Receiver operating characteristic curves for biopsy or referral ability were inconclusive.

Conclusions: The published data are inadequate to demonstrate differences in dermatologists' and PCPs' diagnostic and biopsy or referral accuracy of lesions suggestive of melanoma. We offer study design suggestions for future studies.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Dermatology / standards*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Melanoma / diagnosis*
  • Melanoma / pathology
  • Primary Health Care / standards*
  • ROC Curve
  • Research Design
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Skin Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology