Loes C. M. Bertens and colleagues survey the published diagnostic research literature for use of expert panels to define the reference standard, characterize components and missing information, and recommend elements that should be reported in diagnostic studies.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In diagnostic studies, a single and error-free test that can be used as the reference (gold) standard often does not exist. One solution is the use of panel diagnosis, i.e., a group of experts who assess the results from multiple tests to reach a final diagnosis in each patient. Although panel diagnosis, also known as consensus or expert diagnosis, is frequently used as the reference standard, guidance on preferred methodology is lacking. The aim of this study is to provide an overview of methods used in panel diagnoses and to provide initial guidance on the use and reporting of panel diagnosis as reference standard.
Methods and Findings
PubMed was systematically searched for diagnostic studies applying a panel diagnosis as reference standard published up to May 31, 2012. We included diagnostic studies in which the final diagnosis was made by two or more persons based on results from multiple tests. General study characteristics and details of panel methodology were extracted. Eighty-one studies were included, of which most reported on psychiatry (37%) and cardiovascular (21%) diseases. Data extraction was hampered by incomplete reporting; one or more pieces of critical information about panel reference standard methodology was missing in 83% of studies. In most studies (75%), the panel consisted of three or fewer members. Panel members were blinded to the results of the index test results in 31% of studies. Reproducibility of the decision process was assessed in 17 (21%) studies. Reported details on panel constitution, information for diagnosis and methods of decision making varied considerably between studies.
Methods of panel diagnosis varied substantially across studies and many aspects of the procedure were either unclear or not reported. On the basis of our review, we identified areas for improvement and developed a checklist and flow chart for initial guidance for researchers conducting and reporting of studies involving panel diagnosis.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Before any disease or condition can be treated, a correct diagnosis of the condition has to be made. Faced with a patient with medical problems and no diagnosis, a doctor will ask the patient about their symptoms and medical history and generally will examine the patient. On the basis of this questioning and examination, the clinician will form an initial impression of the possible conditions the patient may have, usually with a most likely diagnosis in mind. To support or reject the most likely diagnosis and to exclude the other possible diagnoses, the clinician will then order a series of tests and diagnostic procedures. These may include laboratory tests (such as the measurement of blood sugar levels), imaging procedures (such as an MRI scan), or functional tests (such as spirometry, which tests lung function). Finally, the clinician will use all the data s/he has collected to reach a firm diagnosis and will recommend a program of treatment or observation for the patient.
Why Was This Study Done?
Researchers are continually looking for new, improved diagnostic tests and multivariable diagnostic models—combinations of tests and characteristics that point to a diagnosis. Diagnostic research, which assesses the accuracy of new tests and models, requires that each patient involved in a diagnostic study has a final correct diagnosis. Unfortunately, for most conditions, there is no single, error-free test that can be used as the reference (gold) standard for diagnosis. If an imperfect reference standard is used, errors in the final disease classification may bias the results of the diagnostic study and may lead to a new test being adopted that is actually less accurate than existing tests. One widely used solution to the lack of a reference standard is “panel diagnosis” in which two or more experts assess the results from multiple tests to reach a final diagnosis for each patient in a diagnostic study. However, there is currently no formal guidance available on the conduct and reporting of panel diagnosis. Here, the researchers undertake a systematic review (a study that uses predefined criteria to identify research on a given topic) to provide an overview of the methodology and reporting of panel diagnosis.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 81 published diagnostic studies that used panel diagnosis as a reference standard. 37% of these studies reported on psychiatric diseases, 21% reported on cardiovascular diseases, and 12% reported on respiratory diseases. Most of the studies (64%) were designed to assess the accuracy of one or more diagnostic test. Notably, one or more critical piece of information on methodology was missing in 83% of the studies. Specifically, information on the constitution of the panel was missing in a quarter of the studies and information on the decision-making process (whether, for example, a diagnosis was reached by discussion among panel members or by combining individual panel member's assessments) was incomplete in more than two-thirds of the studies. In three-quarters of the studies for which information was available, the panel consisted of only two or three members; different fields of expertise were represented in the panels in nearly two-thirds of the studies. In a third of the studies for which information was available, panel members made their diagnoses without access to the results of the test being assessed. Finally, the reproducibility of the decision-making process was assessed in a fifth of the studies.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the methodology of panel diagnosis varies substantially among diagnostic studies and that reporting of this methodology is often unclear or absent. Both the methodology and reporting of panel diagnosis could, therefore, be improved substantially. Based on their findings, the researchers provide a checklist and flow chart to help guide the conduct and reporting of studies involving panel diagnosis. For example, they suggest that, when designing a study that uses panel diagnosis as the reference standard, the number and background of panel members should be considered, and they provide a list of options that should be considered when planning the decision-making process. Although more research into each of the options identified by the researchers is needed, their recommendations provide a starting point for the development of formal guidelines on the methodology and reporting of panel diagnosis for use as a reference standard in diagnostic research.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001531.
Wikipedia has a page on medical diagnosis (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Equator Network is an international initiative that seeks to improve the reliability and value of medical research literature by promoting transparent and accurate reporting of research studies; its website includes information on a wide range of reporting guidelines, including the STAndards for the Reporting of Diagnostic accuracy studies (STARD), an initiative that aims to improve the accuracy and completeness of reporting of studies of diagnostic accuracy