Why You Should Consider an Autopsy When a Loved One Passes

Having an autopsy performed on a deceased loved one can be scary for many people. However, autopsies can provide many answers to questions that loved ones may have after a person passes. There are a multitude of reasons/benefits as to why a family would want to have an autopsy performed — understanding why and how a death occurred, clarity, closure, and serving as a key and crucial piece of evidence if the family chooses to pursue a medical malpractice claim. An autopsy is the ultimate quality assessment tool in understanding the exact cause and circumstances surrounding a death.[1] This tool can assist a family in providing closure as they traverse the difficult process of dealing with a loved one’s passing. Furthermore, because it is considered the “gold standard” in determining why a person died, it can be used as a key piece of evidence in advancing a medical malpractice claim. At times, an autopsy can identify “the smoking gun” of what a physician did wrong.

In an earlier blogpost we highlighted the fact that research is indicating that medical error is the third (3rd) leading cause of death in the U.S. Autopsies used to be commonplace in the first part of the 20th century. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the 1960’s, people who died in hospitals had an autopsy performed around 50% of the time. Today, that number is less than 5%.[2] According to one study, 10%-30% of autopsies reveal previously undiagnosed medical issues. 24% of autopsies reveal a major missed diagnosis.[3]

The ramifications for this are huge. The Federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that when patients were autopisied, major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death were found in one in four cases. In one in ten cases, the error appeared severe enough to have led to the patient’s death. [4]These studies shine more light onto a reason to have an autopsy performed: scientifically establishing the exact cause of a person’s death. Knowing how and why a person died can greatly assist families in moving forward in the future.

People often ask if a death certificate carries the same weight as an autopsy. The short answer is no, it does not. A death certificate is a doctor’s best guess as to why a person passed. It is not scientific or exact in manner but merely a best guess. Factoring in the above mentioned studies, we can deduce that doctors often miss the true cause of death. This may or may not be intentional but one thing can be certain, autopsies are not guesses. They are the gold standard when it comes to determining the underlying causes of death.

Often times, families are asked to make quick decisions regarding autopsies. These are undoubtedly difficult decisions to make. Death is something that we can never predict. Even when we know that it is only a matter of time before someone passes, we never truly know exactly how and when it will occur. Moreover, when death does happen, doctors sometimes fail at adequately explaining why a patient died. They can either be overly busy that day, handling multiple extremely sick people. Sometimes they lack good communication skills. Other times, they take the death of a patient personally and feel as if they have failed them.[5] Regardless of the reasons why, a physician does not communicate how and why a patient passed. This is where an autopsy can be crucial in determining those causes.

In medical malpractice cases, plaintiffs maintain the burden of proof. Having evidence that directly attributes a physician’s negligence or error is essential to pursuing a claim. Autopsies can be the concluding piece of evidence needed to show if a doctor deviated from the standard of care, and if said deviation resulted in the patient’s untimely demise. On the flip side, not having an autopsy can potentially ensure that a claim never even makes it off the ground. 

Remember the following information should you choose to have an autopsy:

  1. Have an autopsy performed as quickly as possible. The general rule is the sooner the better. However, if you have not requested an autopsy and feel that it is too late, still make the request. Autopsies, even when performed after embalming, can still show crucial insights into why a person passed.
  2. It will cost money, and most insurance companies do not pay for it. However, the benefits heavily outweigh the costs in the big picture.
  3. It can help bring closure to you and your family.
  4. It can provide insight into hereditary ailments you might have.
  5. It can help researchers learn and study more about how to effectively treat diseases.

At Marc Stewart Law, we regularly receive calls regarding a decedent and a family’s questioning if medical negligence occurred, and if the alleged negligence contributed to the death of their loved one. Many times the case facts also sound like negligence occurred, but with no autopsy performed, we do not feel we have all the evidence we need to prove a claim, and therefore, do not pursue a claim. Should you or your family be facing the position of having an autopsy performed, we highly encourage you to discuss this option so when the time comes, a decision can be made quickly.

Compiled by Spencer Vereen

[1] "Autopsy 101." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

[2] Beck, Melinda. "What Autopsies Can Teach." WSJ. Wsj.com, 09 Mar. 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

[3] Schiff GD, Kim S, Abrams R, et al. Diagnosing Diagnosis Errors: Lessons from a Multi-institutional Collaborative Project. In: Henriksen K, Battles JB, Marks ES, et al., editors. Advances in Patient Safety: From Research to Implementation (Volume 2: Concepts and Methodology). Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2005 Feb. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20492/

[4] Ibid

[5] Grady, Denise. "The Autopsy, a Search for Reassurance." Http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/health/19seco.html. New York Times, 18 May 2009. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.