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Trend Shows Autopsies Less Common Today; Point to Implications for Patient Care

For years, hospitals have forgone the option of offering or performing autopsies on patients who die unexpected deaths. However, this troubling trend has both short-term and long-term implications for patient care.

Over 50 years ago, autopsies were routinely performed on approximately half of all deceased hospital patients. Prior to 1971, The Joint Commission-a nonprofit organization that accredits thousands of health care organizations in the U.S.-mandated autopsy rates of 20 and 25 percent for community hospitals and teaching facilities, respectively. However, that requirement has since been dropped.

Today, autopsies are performed on approximately five percent of hospital patients who have died from unforeseen deaths. Autopsies are performed at teaching hospitals hovers around 20 percent and around zero percent at private and community hospitals.

Why the Decrease in Autopsies?

One reason behind the decrease-hospitals today are not required to conduct routine autopsies for unexpected deaths in order to stay in good standing. In addition, autopsies cost around $1,275 and in many cases Medicare or private medical insurance do not pay for them directly, so they become an expense often cut from hospital budgets. In fact, these days, many new hospitals are built without on site facilities to even perform autopsies.

Further, the use of modern diagnostic equipment, like MRIs and CT scans, is another reason hospitals perform fewer autopsies. Some say that technological tools have given doctors an increased confidence about identifying ailments in patients while they are still alive, and therefore doctors have moved away from ordering autopsies when they pass away.

Implications for Few Autopsies

Without a thorough autopsy, doctors cannot confirm a patient's exact cause of death. Autopsies can reveal surprising medical ailments that went undiagnosed and untreated. This is of particular importance with relation to unexplained or unobserved deaths. Autopsies also reveal common diagnostic errors that otherwise go undiscovered. Studies have shown that there is still a high rate of doctor error even with the use of today's sophisticated medical equipment.

Long-term, autopsies can be crucial tools used to evaluate and improve medical care and therapies, allocate resources and develop public healthcare programs. Much of medical education still comes from autopsies. The results can help better diagnose and treat patients, reduce the risks of infections and diseases, and ensure accurate medical information ends up in the system to ultimately save lives.