In recent decades, there has been a marked drop in autopsy requests – an unfortunate occurrence. In the distant past, any death within the first 24 hours of admission triggered an autopsy. Any unexplained death in or out of the hospital; any accidental death with questionable etiology required an autopsy. JCAHO required 20% of hospital deaths to undergo autopsy as part of hospital accreditation; that requirement ended in the mid 70’s.
One objection to autopsy comes from families and we can well understand their reluctance. The loss is acute and painful; the thought of mutilating a loved one overrides the practical need to identify the cause of death.
In my review of medical records, an autopsy trumps any postulation by a treating physician. Why? Because when a patient is gravely ill, they often have a number of morbid conditions, any one of which could be fatal. A physician has the natural tendency to see the cause of death from the perspective of their specialty.
Virtually useless is the Death Certificate. Death certificates do not provide root cause, only an end result. Respiratory or cardiac arrest is inevitable in death, but those diagnoses provide no etiology; they cannot address the “why” of death.
If an employee dies in the course of work, has an MI, stroke or other “illness death”, an autopsy can offer the evidence needed in an otherwise uphill battle for causation.
In negligence or malpractice death claims an autopsy is invaluable, but all too often the family’s last concern is dissecting the cause. When questions later arise, that most valuable source of information – the patient and their true cause of death – is irretrievably lost.
From a public safety perspective, we can only speculate on the number of infectious diseases, chemical exposures and related information that may be lost.
Regardless of JCAHO recommendations, it is incumbent upon healthcare professionals to offer this option when the cause of death is not crystal clear. “Natural causes” is the most frustrating and misleading nomenclature in the healthcare dictionary.