Autopsy-Averse Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes

Author: Patrick Malone
Published: December 18, 2011 at 8:19 pm
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Thanks to the proliferation of crime procedural TV shows, most Americans understand the value of autopsies in identifying a catalog of biological factors that add up to being able to nab the perp. But in hospitals, medical mistakes are being buried without autopsies, and that's a problem for safe, high quality medical care.

A recent report from ProPublica, Frontline and NPR makes clear that the autopsy, a valuable tool in posthumous diagnosis, is increasingly ignored.

In the middle of the last century, according to the report, autopsies were an integral part of American health care. They were performed on approximately half of all patients who died in hospitals to pinpoint the cause of death, to assess how effective were the treatments and to identify diagnostic errors. Today, only about 5 in 100 patients who die in hospitals are autopsied. Hospitals are not required to offer or perform autopsies.

The consequences are significant, writes ProPublica’s Marshall Allen. Diagnostic errors – which studies show are common – go undiscovered, allowing physicians to practice on other patients with a false sense of security. Opportunities are lost to learn about the effectiveness of medical treatments and the progression of diseases. Inaccurate information winds up on death certificates, undermining the reliability of crucial health statistics. For families that lose loved ones under mysterious circumstances, an autopsy can provide answers that would otherwise remain out of reach."

Most deaths that occur in hospitals are deemed “natural.” If they are unexplained, unobserved or occur within 24 hours of admission, according to some state laws, they must be reported to local coroners or medical examiners. But those agencies rarely accept hospital cases unless foul play is suspected.

That means if someone dies for unclear reasons, it’s difficult to determine if someone or some procedure was at fault and should be held responsible. In addition to a natural aversion to finger-pointing and possible legal ramifications of accountability, the report says, hospitals are reluctant to conduct autopsies because it’s expensive.

"Hospitals have powerful financial incentives to avoid autopsies. An autopsy costs about $1,275. ... But Medicare and private insurers don’t pay for them directly, typically limiting reimbursement to procedures used to diagnose and treat the living. Medicare bundles payments for autopsies into overall payments to hospitals for quality assurance, increasing the incentive to skip them."

If the next of kin consents, a deceased patient’s doctor may order a clinical autopsy to explore the disease process in the body and determine the cause of death. But even at teaching hospitals, which are typically nonprofit and whose mission is education, autopsies are performed only in about 20 in 100 deaths. The rate at private and community hospitals, which constitute the lion’s share of U.S. facilities, can be close to zero. Some new hospitals are being built without a place to perform autopsies.

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Article Author: Patrick Malone

Patrick Malone is a leading patient safety advocate and attorney who represents seriously injured people in medical malpractice lawsuits, product liability cases and other types of lawsuits. He appeared on the Today Show to discuss his book for …

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