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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 170-173  

The clinicopathologic conference

Department of Cardiology, Heart Hospital, Hamad Medical Corporation, Doha, Qatar

Date of Web Publication18-Dec-2015

Correspondence Address:
Rachel Hajar
Department of Cardiology, Heart Hospital, Hamad Medical Corporation, P. O. Box 3050, Doha
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1995-705X.172218

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How to cite this article:
Hajar R. The clinicopathologic conference. Heart Views 2015;16:170-3

How to cite this URL:
Hajar R. The clinicopathologic conference. Heart Views [serial online] 2015 [cited 2023 Dec 7];16:170-3. Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2015/16/4/170/172218

   Background Top

When I was a medical student, clinicopathologic conferences (CPC) were big events. A medical resident (called the presenter), presents an unknown case, giving the history, physical examination, and all relevant investigations, providing the results of those diagnostic tools. The presenter does not interpret the data; rather he allows the discussant to interpret those data. The discussant - a consultant faculty member of the department - discusses the case based on the presented history, physical findings, and diagnostic studies obtained. Differential diagnoses are put forward and narrowed; the discussant is expected to adhere on a measured, logical progression from a patient's presentation to a narrowed differential diagnoses rather than focusing on a final diagnosis but in the end, he makes a tentative diagnosis based on his discussion of the case before the final diagnosis is revealed. At the end of the discussion, the audience participates in a "question and answer" forum (usually 15 min). After discussion of the case, the presenter (medical resident) discusses how the diagnosis is confirmed and provides details regarding the case outcome. It is, therefore, very important that the case is presented with clarity.

When done properly, the CPC is a great medical educational tool. The prerequisites of a good CPC presentation are (1) selection (2) preparation (3) presentation and (4) discussion.

The CPC was first introduced in the USA, at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston, Massachusetts. When Walter B. Cannon, a world renowned Professor of Physiology was a 4 th -year medical student in 1898, he shared a room with a 2 nd -year law student at Harvard Law School who was fascinated by the use of the case history method of teaching law. In 1900, Cannon proposed in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (a precursor to the NEJM) that such method of teaching for medicine be adopted. In his paper, he wrote that the then current 4 h of continuous lecturing on various diseases from 2 to 6 o'clock 5 days a week "a dreary and benumbing process" and that the "study of case histories have been shown to arouse great enthusiasm and excitement among students." CPCs give students an opportunity to review and debate among themselves the differential diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of a patient as described in the case presentation.

Interestingly, such method of teaching was opposed by Sir William Osler, preferring his students to listen to his medical knowledge and musings on medical history but most professors in the leading medical schools in the USA supported Cannon, in particular, the President of Harvard University, from 1869 to 1909, Charles William Eliot. Eliot is considered one of the great medical education reformers of his era. He eliminated the long-cherished requirement of ancient Greek for entry to Harvard and introduced in its place a strict examination formulated by a commission of educators. He reformed the medical and other types of education at Harvard. His reforms took place before the publication in 1910 of the Flexner Report, a commentary on the condition of medical education in the USA in the 1900s and which gave rise to modern medical education in America and Canada. Many aspects of the present-day American medical profession stem from the Flexner Report and its aftermath.

In 1900, Dr. Richard Cabot of the Massachusetts General Hospital Pathology Service formalized the case study teaching exercise to be part of the 3 rd year training for HMS students. Cabot graduated from Harvard College in 1889, chose medicine, and graduated from HMS in 1892 at the age of 24. In 1914, he wrote the landmark paper, "The Four Common Types of Heart Disease," classifying heart disease according to its cause, a revolutionary point of view at the time. He reported that in 93% of 600 cases of heart disease (he studied) were either rheumatic, atherosclerotic, syphilitic, or nephritic etiology. Paul Dudley White considered the Father of American Cardiology, described him as the greatest contributor to cardiology in his generation.

Dr. Richard Cabot was an ardent advocate of case teaching after Walter Cannon introduced the idea in 1900. The CPC was initiated by Cabot in 1910, a result of his emphasis on the case study and the confirmation of a diagnosis by autopsy. His regular conference was held at Massachusetts General Hospital, a record of which was edited by him and published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now the New England Journal of Medicine) from 1924 to 1935.

Since 1924, the clinicopathological conferences (or "CPCs") have been published regularly in the New England Journal of Medicine as Case Records of the Massachusetts General Hospital. At each conference, a faculty physician is asked to conclude the diagnosis of an anonymous, actual MGH patient based solely on the medical history and preliminary test results. The confirmed diagnosis is then presented, with evidence, by a member of the MGH Pathology Service.

Although the members of the faculty physicians invited to discuss the case are frequently correct, occasionally their final diagnosis is incorrect but this is regarded as part of the teaching exercise. Dr. Benjamin Castleman, the editor of the Case Records of the MGH from 1951 to 1975 stated in 1960, "The clinicopathological conferences remain an exercise in deductive reasoning and clinicopathological correlation. It is less important to pinpoint, the correct diagnosis than to present a logical and instructive analysis of the pertinent conditions involved. On the rare occasions, when the correct diagnosis is esoteric or almost unattainable, if the physician discussing the case emphasizes the practical clinical problems, it does not matter if the answer is wrong."

It really does not matter if the final diagnosis is incorrect; what matters is the logic in the analyses. Today, CPCs remain a vital part in the training of physicians at HMS and in medical institutions in America. They are read by physicians and medical students all over the world.

   Choosing A Case For The Clinicopathologic Conference Top

The type of case selected is an important determinant of the presentation's effectiveness. The spectrum of potential CPC cases is broad. Cases that are unusual presentations of common diagnoses or typical presentations of unusual diagnoses make the best cases for CPC presentation. Cases that are highly complex contain multiple primary diagnoses, or are laden with many extraneous facts are difficult to solve and are avoided.

Cases for CPC conference must be relevant, solvable, and could be discussed.

Cases in which the final diagnosis is deduced, or highly suspected, based upon available information are considered "relevant."

The discussant must have a reasonable opportunity to make, deduce, or highly suspect the final diagnosis - "solvability." Enough discriminating information must be available to allow a thoughtful, logical discussion of the differential diagnosis. Finally, the case must have features that can be discussed. Cases that do not allow a demonstration of the deductive process used to reach a diagnosis do not afford the opportunity to teach the audience to think logically. Cases that have interesting and educational differential diagnoses should be selected.

   Preparing And Presenting The Case Top

After an appropriate case is selected, it is prepared for presentation. The medical resident presents the case to the audience. The chief complaint, the history of present illness, past medical and surgical histories, social histories, medications, and allergies are important elements and should be provided. Vital signs and physical examination are provided at an appropriate level of detail. Diagnostic studies obtained are presented in the order in which it was collected. It may be appropriate to withhold a confirmatory test obtained as long as the case is solvable based upon other information presented. This purely is the responsibility of the presenter.

The case should be presented clearly, concisely, and succinctly. After the case is presented, the discussant is introduced before he begins his discussion.

   Discussing The Case Top

In a formal CPC, the discussion part comes from a consultant faculty member invited to discuss/analyze the case. The presenter starts the CPC with the case presentation and ends the CPC with the final diagnosis and in between, the discussant evaluates the case, summarizing the salient features and relating these features to a list of differential diagnoses in his opinion.

The contextual interpretation of data is an important part of the CPC discussion. The discussant (not the presenter) interprets the results of diagnostic studies. The history and physical examination obtained are provided at an appropriate level of detail. It is customary to present all information obtained, usually in the order in which it was collected. The discussant decides which bits of information are relevant and which are "red herrings." On rare occasion, it may be appropriate to withhold a confirmatory test obtained early on, as long as the case is solvable based upon the other information provided. The goal of this academic exercise is not to "puzzle" the discussant but to present an interesting and educational conference.

   Presenting The Final Diagnosis Top

The CPC emphasizes a measured, logical progression from a patients' presentation to a narrowed differential diagnoses rather than focusing on a final diagnosis. The CPC is all about the processes in which a case is presented that allow the discussant to guide the audience to a tentative final diagnosis. To reveal the final diagnosis is the job of the presenter.

   The Clinicopathologic Conference As An Educational Tool Top

There are not that many articles in the medical literature regarding the CPC. It has been stated that many institutions have abandoned it and that attendance has dwindled. There have been no published reports on the status of the CPC, therefore Heudebert and McKinney (J Gen Intern Med 1999) conducted a survey (22-item questionnaire) on how many institutions use the CPC as a teaching conference, the perceived objective/educational value of the CPC, and how does it rate in comparison with other teaching conferences. The perceived educational value of the CPC in comparison with other teaching conferences was assessed using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = best, 3 = average, 5 = worst).

A total of 398 questionnaires were mailed, and 278 training programs responded (71% response rate). Of the 278 responding programs, 80% stated that a CPC was scheduled regularly as one of their teaching conferences. The number of CPCs scheduled varied substantially across institutions from 2 per year to almost 2 per week.

The chief resident was the sole individual responsible for choosing the CPC in 42%, with the remaining choosing cases in conjunction with the program director, a pathologist, or both. Cases were mostly selected from either the chief resident's log (31%) or the pathologist's logbook (46%).

15% of responding institutions required all teaching faculty to be discussants of the CPC, one-quarter assigning them randomly. Among remaining institutions, 91% of the discussants were assigned to cases by matching their clinical expertise to the case under consideration.

When asked about the perceived educational value of the CPC compared with other teaching conferences, respondents favorably rated the CPC both in educational value and popularity. Approximately, half of the institutions felt that the primary objective of the CPC was to teach clinical problem-solving skills; another 41% felt it was a combination of this and the provision of an in-depth review of a topic.

The survey data in this study indicate that the CPC remains a widely utilized educational tool. Excellent case selection, conference organization, and effective collaboration are essential elements in the success of the CPC. In this survey, the institutions relied heavily on the chief resident for the process. In contrast, at the MGH (whose CPC has been successful for decades and has been published since 1924 in the New England Journal of Medicine) several experienced individuals participate in the process of CPC development. Case selection is based on the combined input from a pathologist and an internal medicine faculty member. Data abstraction and protocol preparation are done by a seasoned clinician to ensure reliability and relevance of information.

The usefulness of the CPC as an educational tool has been questioned, with some people considering it an anachronism. The survey indicates that the CPC is alive and doing well as a teaching conference. However, the survey was done in 1999, before the proliferation of technology. Perhaps, today, with the help of technology, we may be able to assess better its influence on strategies to enhance the clinical problem-solving skills of physician-trainees. Technology may also improve the quality of the CPC's educational value.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.[8]

   References Top

Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK702/. [Last accessed on 2015 Nov 08].  Back to cited text no. 1
Benjamin C, Dudley HR, editors. Clinicopathological Conferences of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Selected Medical Cases. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.; 1960. p. viii.  Back to cited text no. 2
Hurst JW. Paul Dudley White: the father of American cardiology. Clin Cardiol 1991;14:622-6.  Back to cited text no. 3
Available from: http://www. 2.massgeneral.org/history/catalogueDetails.asp?catalogueNo=118. [Last accessed on 2015 Nov 08].  Back to cited text no. 4
Available from: http://www.cordem.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=3295. [Last accessed on 2015 Nov 08].  Back to cited text no. 5
Heudebert GR, McKinney WP. The status of the clinicopathologic conference in academic medical centers. J Gen Intern Med 1999;14:60-2.  Back to cited text no. 6
Lipkin M. Sounding Boards. CPC as an anachronism. N Engl J Med 1979;301:1113-4.  Back to cited text no. 7
Scully RE. Sounding Boards. In defense of the CPC. N Engl J Med 1979;301:1114-6.  Back to cited text no. 8

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