Communicating Uncertainty in Surgical Pathology Reports: A Survey of Staff Physicians and Residents at an Academic Medical Center

Erika Bracamonte, Blake A. Gibson, Robert Klein, Elizabeth A. Krupinski, Ronald S. Weinstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


In order to document perceptions of text comments appearing in surgical pathology reports, questionnaires were distributed to 4 groups of caregivers: university staff pathologists, resident pathologists, faculty clinicians (other than pathologists), and resident clinicians at a teaching hospital. Results of this pilot study showed a wide degree of variability existed within each group of surgical pathology report users, with respect to percent confidence assigned to various phrases, commonly used to express diagnostic uncertainty, appearing often as free-text comments in surgical pathology reports. The unavailability of immunohistochemistry tests, or ambiguous immunohistochemistry test results, was especially problematic. With respect to modes of communication between the surgical pathology laboratory and its service users, clinicians indicated they preferred to use tumor boards/interdisciplinary conferences, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls to clarify their interpretations of a pathologist’s diagnoses, as compared with simply reading free-text comments. On the other hand, surgical pathologists rely heavily on their use of the comment portion of a surgical pathology report to clarify, modify, or expand on the diagnoses they render. The majority of clinicians stated that they “always” read the free-text comment portion of a surgical pathology report, whereas some acknowledged they do not always read it. Pathology residents had significantly less confidence in the ability of a free-text comment on a surgical pathology report to clarify a diagnosis (χ2 = 46.36, P <.0001). Pathology departments should consider standardizing definitions and weighting the words and phrases they use in their free-text comment sections of surgical pathology reports.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAcademic Pathology
StatePublished - 2016


  • diagnostic accuracy
  • free-text comments
  • human performance studies
  • interobserver variability
  • medical errors
  • quality measures
  • surgical pathology reports

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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