Wall Street Journal Addresses Error Rates by Pathologists

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MEDICAL ERRORS HAVE TAKEN center stage in the public eye, and recently the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) printed a prominent story about errors made by the pathology profession.

On Friday, April 13, the WSJ’s “Health Journal” column on the front page of section two tackled the topic of pathology errors and how patients should protect themselves from pathologists who don’t get it right.

Under the headline “Risk of Error May Justify Second Opinion On Pathology Reports,” columnist Tara Parer-Pope laid out an interesting argument as to why pathologists don’t always make the right diagnosis, followed by recommendations on ways that patients can obtain a second pathology opinion.

The story quoted a study by Johns Hopkins University which determined that “about 1.4% of pathology cases involve serious errors, such as diagnosing cancer when a tumor is actually benign, giving a patient a clean bill of health when the problem actually is cancer, or diagnosing the wrong type of cancer.”

Mistakes On 20% of Cases

Pathologists at Johns Hopkins also see higher rates of pathology mistakes for certain diseases. For example, of the 6,000 prostate cancer cases referred to Johns Hopkins yearly, Johns Hopkins pathologists find that as many as 20% of these cases have mistakes in grading and staging, which tell a doctor how aggressive or advanced the cancer is.

Pathologists should consider this prominent story in the Wall Street Journal as an important development. It’s tangible evidence that the trend of consumer involvement in their healthcare continues to gather momentum.

Story On Pathology Errors

The purpose of the WSJ story was to educate consumers about two things. First, that pathologists get it wrong in a significant number of cases. Second, to teach different ways to request a second pathology opinion and effective methods to get around hurdles in the healthcare system that might prevent a second pathology opinion.

This WSJ story on pathology errors brings the pathology profession closer to the day when the cumulative caseload of opinions generated by individual pathologists will be “graded” or “scored,” then published. This will permit referring physicians, patients, and payers to identify top-performing pathologists from those of only average talent.

For the pathology profession, the Wall Street Journal story on pathology error rates is another warning sign in the marketplace. At some point, individual pathology group practices will need to respond to the growing consumer demand for better education about their disease, quality rankings of individual pathologists, and improved consumer access to pathology subspecialists.

Consumers’ concerns over pathology errors may turn out to be one lever that payers, physicians, and patients use to improve how the existing healthcare system uses pathology services.


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