Cancer Patients Often Harmed by Diagnostic Procedures that are Prone to Error

According to a study published in CANCER (online 10/10/05 – in print 11/15/05), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, certain procedures that are used to test for cancer in body tissue specimens have a relatively high frequency of error which can result in harm for patients.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine looked at medical records, tissue samples, and pathologists’ findings from four different institutions to assess the frequency, cause, and effects of such errors in cancer diagnosis.

The study found that up to 9% of Pap test and cervical biopsies studied had an error and 12% of non-gynecologic specimen pairs studied had an erroneous diagnosis.

According to the researchers, most of the errors were caused by inadequate specimen collection. Errors caused by misinterpretation by pathologists ranged from 5% to as high as 50%.

After reviewing medical records, the research team found that non-gynecologic errors led to harming patients in 39% of cases. In gynecologic cases, errors resulted in harm in 45% of cases.

“Harm” could consist of delays in diagnosis or delays in additional testing which would cause healthcare costs to increase. Rarely, however, did unneeded procedures take place as a result of a false positive diagnosis.

Researchers found that pathologists disagreed on the severity of harm that was caused by errors in cancer diagnosis.

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