Cold Iron Truth

Improving statewide reporting of melanoma cases


For years, it has been strongly suspected that malignant melanoma is underreported in the United States. I have audited my melanoma cases (biopsies and excisions sent to me) and discovered that of the 240 cases confirmed over the past 5 years, only 41 were reported to the Ohio state health department and are in that database. That amounts to 199 unreported cases – nearly 83% of the total.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

This raises the question as to who is responsible for reporting these cases. Dermatology is unique in that our pathology specimens are not routinely passed through a hospital pathology laboratory. The big difference in reporting is that hospital labs have trained data registrars to report all reportable cancers to state health departments. Therefore, in my case, only patients sent to a hospital-based surgeon for sentinel node biopsies or exceptionally large excisions get reported. When I have spoken about this to my dermatology lab and biopsying physicians, the discussion rapidly turns into a finger pointing game of who is responsible. No one, except perhaps the dermatologist who did the biopsy, has all the data.

Unfortunately, these cases are tedious and time consuming to report. Despite state laws requiring reporting, even with penalties for nonreporters, many small dermatology practices do not report these cases and expect their dermatopathology labs to do so, but the labs expect the biopsying dermatologist to report the cases. This is a classic case of an unfunded mandate since small dermatology practices do not have the time or resources for reporting.

I have worked with the Ohio Department of Health to remove any unnecessary data fields and they have managed to reduce the reporting fields (to 59!). This is the minimum amount required to be included in the National Cancer Institute’s SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database. Many of these fields are not applicable to thin melanomas and after reviewing the 1-hour online training course, each patient can be entered (once the necessary data are collected) in about 15 minutes. This is still a formidable task for small offices, which cannot be blamed for ducking and hoping someone else reports.

While there is controversy regarding the relevance of thin melanomas to overall survival, more accurate reporting can only bolster either argument.

A solution to underreporting

I believe we have developed a unique solution to this conundrum. Our office is partnering with the local melanoma support group (Melanoma Know More) to train volunteers to help with the data collection and reporting of these thin melanomas. We have also discovered that the local community college has students who are majoring in pathology data registry reporting and are happy to gain a little experience before graduating.

We eventually hope to become a clearinghouse for the entire state of Ohio. The state health department has agreed not to apply punitive measures to physicians who are new reporters. It is our plan to obtain melanoma pathology reports, run these past the state database, identify unreported cases, and obtain further data as needed from the biopsying physicians, and then complete the reporting.

I think dermatologic oncologists in every state should view this as an opportunity for a significant quality improvement project, and as a terrific service to the general dermatology community.

The ramifications of more comprehensive reporting of melanomas are great. I would expect more attention to the disease by researchers, and much more clout with state and national legislators. Think about increased funding for melanoma research, allowing sunscreen use for school children, sunshades for playgrounds, and more responsible tanning bed restrictions.

Now, I must inform you that this is my last column, but I plan to continue writing. Over the past 6 years, I have been able to cover a wide range of topics ranging from human trafficking and the American Medical Association, to the many problems faced by small practices. I have enjoyed myself hugely. To quote Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “So long and thanks for all the fish!” Keep in touch at [email protected]

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Write to him at [email protected].

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