Diagnostic 'errors' in anatomical pathology: relevance to Australian laboratories

Pathology. 2006 Dec;38(6):490-7. doi: 10.1080/00313020601032477.


Failure to recognise that anatomical pathology diagnosis is a process of cognitive interpretation of the morphological features present in a small tissue sample has led to the public misperception that the process is infallible. The absence of a universally accepted definition of diagnostic error makes comparison of error rates impossible and one large study of laboratories in the United States shows a significant error rate of about 5%, most of which have no major impact on patient management. A recent review of the work of one pathologist in New South Wales confirms a lack of appreciation in medical administration that variable diagnostic thresholds result in an inherent fallibility of anatomical pathology diagnoses. The outcome of the review emphasises the need to educate both public and non-pathology colleagues of the nature of our work and brings into consideration the requirement to establish baseline error rates for Australian laboratories and the role of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) in developing fair and unbiased protocols for review of diagnostic errors. The responsibility of ensuring that diagnostic error rates are kept to the minimum is a shared one. Area health services must play their part by seeking to ensure that pathologists in any laboratory are not overworked and have adequate support and back-up from pathologists with expertise in specialised areas. It has been clearly enunciated by the Royal College of Pathologists in the United Kingdom that it is not safe for any histopathology service to be operated single-handedly by one histopathologist. Service managers and clinicians have to understand that country pathologists cannot provide the full range and depth of pathology expertise in the many clinical subspecialty areas that are often practised in non-metropolitan areas. Attending clinicians share the responsibility of accepting proffered pathology diagnoses only if it conforms to the clinical context. Pathology laboratories must continue to develop and maintain best-practice protocols and conduct periodic reviews of diagnosis, cytology-histology concordance, frozen section/permanent section correlations, conference reviews, intra and interdepartmental consultations, participate in external quality assurance programs and maintain ongoing education for all laboratory staff.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Australia
  • Diagnostic Errors / classification*
  • Humans
  • Laboratories, Hospital / standards*
  • Pathology / methods
  • Pathology / standards*
  • Pathology Department, Hospital / standards
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care
  • Quality Control
  • Reproducibility of Results