Misleading terminology in pathology: lack of definitions hampers communication

Virchows Arch. 2021 Apr 2. doi: 10.1007/s00428-021-03069-7. Online ahead of print.


Accurate terminology is the basis for clear communication among specialists and relies upon precise definitions, indispensable for the WHO Classification of Tumours. We identified a number of potentially misleading terms in use in the recently published WHO Classification of Tumours, 5th edition. From a list of common sources that might be consulted by specialists in the pathology field, we searched for definitions of the terms. Where at least two sources provided definitions for a term, we assessed their level of agreement using an ad hoc developed scale. We identified 26 potentially misleading terms from the 5th edition Digestive System and Breast Tumour Books, and 16 sources. The number of definitions provided by the sources ranged from no definition (for four terms) to ten (for two terms). No source had definitions for all terms. We found only 111 (27%) of a possible 416 definitions. Where two or more definitions were present for a term, the level of agreement between them was judged to be high. There was a paucity of definitions for potentially misleading terms in the sources consulted, but there was a good agreement when two or more definitions were present. In a globalized world where healthcare workers and learners in many fields may access these sources to learn about terminology with which they are unfamiliar, the lack of definitions is a hindrance to a precise understanding of classification in the speciality of pathology and to clear communication between specialist groups.

Keywords: Classification of tumors; Communication; Medical terminology.