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Autopsy rates have dropped and many deaths now go unexplained

Autopsies used to be routine for about half of patients who died in hospitals. Today, minimum requirements have been dropped and only about 5 percent of deaths are investigated through autopsy. Doctors and patients advocates say that the decrease in autopsies has lead to a loss of ongoing learning and research opportunities.

Hospitals say that autopsies are too expensive, at about $1,275 per procedure, to do at a high rate. Medicare and private insurers do not typically reimburse hospitals for autopsies. However, families say that unexplained deaths are difficult to process. There are also indications that facilities or doctors may shy away from autopsies, for fear of discovering a case of medical malpractice that could expose them to liability.

Along with potential lost learning opportunities, some worry that crucial health statistics are impacted by inaccurate determinations of cause of death. Diagnostic errors are common, and without autopsies, are likely to go undiscovered.

Deaths that are a result of medical malpractice may entitle the family to recover for both malpractice and wrongful death. These types of cases involve extensive research and expert testimony to determine the precise cause of the death and a determination of whether or not the doctor took the correct steps to treat the patient.

In New Jersey, malpractice claims must be filed within two years of when the claimant reasonably should have known of the malpractice. Without an autopsy, families may never find out if they lost a loved one due to negligent misdiagnosis. An attorney can help people evaluate whether or not they have a reasonable claim for malpractice.

Source: Pro Publica, “Without Autopsies, Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes,” Marshall Allen, Dec. 15, 2011

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