I was looking through the NPR site this morning and came across a rather disturbing story. It seems that autopsies are not as routine as they used to be, contrary to what we are led to believe by TV medical shows.
The NPR article refers the reader to this story on Propublica, a site I've not heard of before. (apparently NPR, Propublica and the television show, Frontline, are cooperating on this investigation)
The articles point out that autopsies used to be performed on about 1/2 of all patients who died in a hospital 50 years ago but that number has been reduced to 5 percent.
It seems that hospitals are not required to perform autopsies and, with the great number of malpractice suits filed now days, they may feel it doesn't benefit them to do so. The problem is, there are more reasons than you'd think to perform an autopsy - not just to see if there is evidence of malpractice.
For example, if you are not sure why a patient passed away, it may be due to a hereditary condition that was not diagnosed. This could be vitally important to living relatives of the patient who might be able to avoid the same fate if they are aware of the problem in advance.
Another reason that autopsies should be performed in some cases are so doctors can see if a particular medical treatment was effective for the patient or if it caused problems which lead to the death.
It seems clear that there is a lot of information that could be gleaned by performing an autopsy but the average person might have a hard time getting one done on a loved one who has passed away. The Propublica website tells the story of a woman who died suddenly who worked in medical research. Her colleagues offered to perform the autopsy pro-bono and her husband gave his permission for it to be done.
The average person doesn't have those connections and even if they could convince medical professionals to perform the diagnostic, they would have to pay for it themselves. An autopsy can cost around $1,275. That's quite a cost for people who are also possibly looking at funeral expenses as well.
From the information given in these articles, it's clear that we are not better off with less autopsies being performed. Perhaps new regulations are needed to require they be done in certain situations and perhaps insurance companies should be required to foot the bill. Allowing the hospitals to regulate themselves is obviously not working so it may be time for the government to step in.
Image courtesy of NASA