Background: In diagnostic studies, a single and error-free test that can be used as the reference (gold) standard often does not exist. One solution is the use of panel diagnosis, i.e., a group of experts who assess the results from multiple tests to reach a final diagnosis in each patient. Although panel diagnosis, also known as consensus or expert diagnosis, is frequently used as the reference standard, guidance on preferred methodology is lacking. The aim of this study is to provide an overview of methods used in panel diagnoses and to provide initial guidance on the use and reporting of panel diagnosis as reference standard.
Methods and findings: PubMed was systematically searched for diagnostic studies applying a panel diagnosis as reference standard published up to May 31, 2012. We included diagnostic studies in which the final diagnosis was made by two or more persons based on results from multiple tests. General study characteristics and details of panel methodology were extracted. Eighty-one studies were included, of which most reported on psychiatry (37%) and cardiovascular (21%) diseases. Data extraction was hampered by incomplete reporting; one or more pieces of critical information about panel reference standard methodology was missing in 83% of studies. In most studies (75%), the panel consisted of three or fewer members. Panel members were blinded to the results of the index test results in 31% of studies. Reproducibility of the decision process was assessed in 17 (21%) studies. Reported details on panel constitution, information for diagnosis and methods of decision making varied considerably between studies.
Conclusions: Methods of panel diagnosis varied substantially across studies and many aspects of the procedure were either unclear or not reported. On the basis of our review, we identified areas for improvement and developed a checklist and flow chart for initial guidance for researchers conducting and reporting of studies involving panel diagnosis. Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.