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Lower autopsy rate means fewer medical errors discovered

Autopsies used to be a part of the medical routine after any type of death. Data indicates that autopsy rates were approximately 50% within the last 50 years. Now, only 5 percent of hospital deaths receive autopsies to determine the precise cause.

Medical experts say that autopsies are an important element of accountability for doctors as well as a valuable learning experience. Some worry that autopsy rates have declined as doctors' fear discovering mistakes and become liable for a medical malpractice action.

Costs are high for autopsies, and insurance does not typically cover the procedure. Even Medicare has repeatedly declined to reimburse hospitals for the procedure. A spokesperson for United Health Group, the nation's largest insurer, said that they do not reimburse hospitals for autopsies because "isn't a procedure that would prevent or treat a sickness or injury" in a patient. Some doctors have called this view shortsighted, saying that in the long run, sickness and injury could be prevented from the knowledge gained from the procedure.

An advisory report to Congress dating back to 1999 stated that an increased rate of clinical autopsies could reduce errors and improve health care overall. The procedure can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of treatment and adapt for better outcomes in the future.

One researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine discovered a breakthrough in hospital-acquired infections through her autopsy research. By studying the pathology of infections, she found that clusters of illness go in waves through hospitals and that by changing antibiotic regimens to successfully kill the bacterium.

Source: Pro Publica, "Without Autopsies, Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes," Dec. 15, 2012.

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