NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Autopsies Are On The Wane

January 10, 2001

The rate of autopsies in the nation's hospitals has been declining for decades. The reasons are numerous, but the trend is somewhat troubling to medical professionals, who point out that autopsies can provide valuable medical information.

In fact, they have been described as the living learning from the dead. The literal meaning of the Greek-derived word "autopsy" is "seeing for oneself."

  • The autopsy rate is now no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of all deaths.
  • In many institutions fewer than 3 percent of deaths prompt an autopsy -- and in nursing homes, deaths result in autopsies only 1 percent of the time, at best.
  • When an out-of-hospital death occurs suddenly, unexpectedly or results from unusual or violent circumstances, in most states it is up to the county coroner or medical examiner to decide whether an autopsy is warranted -- although some states mandate that autopsies be performed in certain situations.
  • Experts report that about half of unusual or suspicious deaths turn out to be due to natural causes.

Financial pressures are one of the reasons hospitals are performing fewer autopsies. Some hospitals now charge families, who want an autopsy performed on a relative, for the cost of the procedure -- the minimum cost being about $2,500.

Advanced diagnostic tools -- such as C.T. scans, MRI's and PET scans -- may also be lessening the need for autopsies.

But experts estimate that in 20 to 40 percent of cases, an autopsy will uncover a diagnostic discrepancy between the medical diagnosis and the actual disease.

Source: Jane E. Brody, "A Price to Pay as Autopsies Lose Favor," New York Times, January 9, 2001.


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