We might expect that, if a loved one dies unexpectedly in a hospital, an autopsy would automatically be performed. Unfortunately, this is not so. The policies on autopsies, including when and how they are performed, have evolved over the years so that they seem out of reach for many people who would benefit from them. Fewer autopsies may also result in lower numbers of medical malpractice claims.
Today, about 5 percent of people who die while they are in the hospital undergo autopsies. Approximately 50 years ago, the number was ten times as high. Families of Ohio patients, however, deserve to know why they lost a person close to them.
Insurance companies do not pay for autopsies, because the purpose of health insurance is to treat the living. In addition, the structure of Medicare payments makes it financially advantageous for hospitals to avoid autopsies. These factors, plus a change over 40 years ago that removed autopsy quotas for accredited hospitals, mean that autopsies often are not a clear option for family members who do not know why their loved ones died in the hospital.
Autopsies Could Uncover Failure to Diagnose, Misdiagnosis
When the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed academic studies in 2002, it found that approximately 25 percent of the cases revealed serious errors concerning the cause of death or diagnosis. About 10 percent of the errors may have caused patients' deaths.
Misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose are all serious diagnostic errors that can go undetected when no autopsy is performed. Doctors may never know what they missed, or how they could have saved a patient's life. Other patients with the same condition will not benefit from doctors' increased awareness, either.
Hospitals are not required to perform, or even offer, autopsies. Autopsies typically cost more than $1,000. Even so, an autopsy could answer a family member's most urgent questions about a loved one's fate, including whether a doctor or other health care provider was negligent or provided the best care possible.
Source: ProPublica, "Without Autopsies, Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes," Marshall Allen, Dec. 15, 2011.