NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 26, 2005

The New York Times Magazine examined why autopsies on people who die in hospitals have become such rare occurrences, and how a lack of autopsies might be costing physicians and patients valuable medical knowledge.

Hospital autopsies are routinely performed in only a select number of cases, and fewer then 5 percent of hospital deaths are autopsied today, compared with nearly half in the 1960s. Part of the reason for the reduced number of hospital autopsies is that many pathologists "don't like" the procedure, which takes about two to four hours "at the table" and another several hours performing analysis, according to the Times.


  • Autopsies come "atop other duties ... that feel more urgent" for pathologists, the Times reports.
  • In addition, many hospitals do not pay pathologists to perform autopsies, which can cost from $2,000 to $4,000 and are not covered by insurance.
  • Another factor is the "overconfidence that doctors -- and patients -- have in MRIs and other high-tech diagnostic tools," the Times reports.

However, an increasing number of physicians say that autopsies can provide a "uniquely effective means of quality control and knowledge," revealing what was missed and helping doctors avoid repeat mistakes. The procedure also can reveal previously unknown pathogens and increase knowledge about emerging diseases, doctors say.

In an increasingly high-tech world, an autopsy remains the most important tool in the history of medicine, says Alan Schiller, chair of pathology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Source: David Dobbs, "Buried Answers," New York Times Magazine, April 24, 2005.

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