Pathology reports are the main modality in which results are communicated to other physicians. For various reasons, the diagnosis may be qualified on a spectrum of uncertainty.


To examine how communication of uncertainty is an unexamined source of possible medical error. No study to our knowledge has examined pathology reports across multiple institutions. This study seeks to identify commonly used phrases of diagnostic uncertainty and their interpreted meanings by surgical pathologists and clinicians.


Anonymous surveys were completed at 3 major US academic institutions by 18 practicing staff pathologists, 12 pathology residents, 53 staff clinicians, and 50 resident/allied health professional clinicians at 5 standard tumor boards. All participants rated percentage certainty associated with 7 diagnostic terms. Pathologists answered 2 questions related to the ability to clarify a diagnosis using a comment and comfort wording pathology reports. Clinicians answered questions on how often they read a pathology report comment, if they found the comment helpful, and how comfortable they were in reading pathology reports.


A wide range in percentage certainty was found for each of the 7 diagnostic phrases. Both staff and resident clinicians and residents showed wide variability in interpreting the phrases. Twenty-five of 50 staff clinicians (52%) were very comfortable reading a pathology report, whereas only 4 of 53 resident clinicians (8%) were very comfortable reading a pathology report. Twenty-four of 53 staff clinicians (63%) reported always reading the comment, yet only 20 of 53 (27%) always found the comment helpful. The phrases “diagnostic of” and “consistent with” had the strongest agreement in meaning. The weakest agreement was between “suspicious for” and “compatible with.”


Efforts to standardize diagnostic terms may improve communication.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

The authors have no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.

Presented at the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology Annual Meeting; March 19, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.