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Autopsies Detect Medical Errors

As San Diego medical malpractice attorneys, we are concerned by recent reports suggesting that autopsies are becoming increasingly uncommon when patients die in hospitals. This trend is alarming because autopsies often reveal medical errors that would otherwise go undiscovered.

As detailed by Pro Publica, autopsies are no longer routine. While they were once performed on roughly half of all patients who died in hospitals, they are only conducted on about 5 percent of such patients today, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why Aren’t Autopsies Being Performed?

Medical experts point to several reasons to explain why autopsies are so infrequently performed. One of the problems is that hospitals are not required to offer or perform autopsies. Since a 1971 decision by The Joint Commission, which accredits health-care facilities, hospitals haven’t had to conduct autopsies to remain in good standing.

In addition, an autopsy costs about $1,275, and insurers rarely pay for them. At the same time, some health care providers outright discourage them, out of fear that they may reveal malpractice

Why Are Autopsies Important for Detecting Medical Errors?

“Much of what we know about medicine comes from the autopsy,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, chairman of the forensic pathology committee for the College of American Pathologists. “You really can’t say for sure what went on or didn’t go on without the autopsy as a quality assurance tool.”

The value of autopsies has also been conformed by countless studies. For instance, a 2002 study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that when patients were autopsied, major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death were found in one of four cases. In one of 10 cases, the error appeared severe enough to have led to the patient’s death.

“Clinicians have compelling reasons to request autopsies far more often than currently occurs,” the agency concluded.