Helping identify and exclude causes of death, autopsies can provide valuable evidence of medical negligence or wrongdoing in malpractice claims. However, the autopsy rate in hospitals in Indiana and throughout the U.S. has been declining since the 1970s. An article published in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal, reports that autopsies are performed in only 4% of deaths occurring in hospitals.
A diagnostic tool, autopsies involve thorough external and internal examinations of people who have died. Pathologists record physical characteristics and identifying marks, as well as examine the bones, organs, and tissues for signs of trauma, damage, or disease. Their findings and evaluations are compiled in a final report, along with photographic evidence.
Why Should Families Ask for an Autopsy?
When families suspect that medical negligence or errors contributed to the deaths of their loved ones, they may consider asking for an autopsy to aid in malpractice claims. While the opinions of expert witnesses are helpful, such testimony is more convincing when accompanied by concrete examination analysis. Unlike experts who may change their minds or have their words skewed by the defense, autopsy reports are clear and do not change.
Additionally, death certificates list the cause of death, but they do not specify the actions or inactions that contributed to those causes. For example, a death certificate may list cardiac arrest as a cause of death, but fail to indicate that the event was the result of a drug interaction by medications administered by hospital staff. Studies routinely show that autopsies are responsible for identifying missed medical conditions. In many cases, treating patients would have impacted their survival.
What If the Hospital Refuses?
A refusal by hospitals or treating medical professionals may be a red flag for families. Unfortunately, some health care facilities or providers may deny family requests for autopsies out of fear that damaging information may be discovered and used against them in medical malpractice cases. However, findings of medical negligence are not based entirely on the accuracy of clinical diagnosis. Rather, they focus on the occurrence of standard-of-care failures, which ultimately contribute to patient deaths.
In other cases, the reasons for autopsy request refusals are due to financial considerations. There is no direct funding for autopsies, so the costs fall to the hospital, federal government, or families. Further, physicians sometimes assert that these invasive exams are outdated and no longer necessary due to the advent of modern imaging and laboratory tests.