Position statement on classification of basal cell carcinomas. Part 1: unsupervised clustering of experts as a way to build an operational classification of advanced basal cell carcinoma based on pattern recognition.

Grob JJ, Guminski A, Malvehy J, Basset-Seguin N, Bertrand B, Fernandez-Penas P, Kaufmann R, Zalaudek I, Gaudy-Marqueste C, Fargnoli MC, Tagliaferri L, Fertil B, Del Marmol V, Stratigos A, Garbe C, Peris K. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. (Epub 25 Aug 2021)


Background: No simple classification system has emerged for ‘advanced basal cell carcinomas’, and more generally for all difficult-to-treat BCCs (DTT-BCCs), due to the heterogeneity of situations, TNM inappropriateness to BCCs, and different approaches of different specialists.

Objective: To generate an operational classification, using the unconscious ability of experts to simplify the great heterogeneity of the clinical situations into a few relevant groups, which drive their treatment decisions.

Method: Non-supervised independent and blinded clustering of real clinical cases of DTT-BCCs was used. Fourteen international experts from different specialties independently partitioned 199 patient cases considered ‘difficult to treat’ into as many clusters they want (≤10), choosing their own criteria for partitioning. Convergences and divergences between the individual partitions were analyzed using the similarity matrix, K-mean approach, and average silhouette method.

Results: There was a rather consensual clustering of cases, regardless of the specialty and nationality of the experts. Mathematical analysis showed that consensus between experts was best represented by a partition of DTT-BCCs into five clusters, easily recognized a posteriori as five clear-cut patterns of clinical situations. The concept of ‘locally advanced’ did not appear consistent between experts.

Conclusion: Although convergence between experts was not granted, this experiment shows that clinicians dealing with BCCs all tend to work by a similar pattern recognition based on the overall analysis of the situation. This study thus provides the first consensual classification of DTT-BCCs. This experimental approach using mathematical analysis of independent and blinded clustering of cases by experts can probably be applied to many other situations in dermatology and oncology.