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Study Highlights Concerns Over Fewer Hospital Autopsies, Part I

ProPublica recently published a widely-read report about the declining use of autopsies in hospitals. Many medical experts say action to correct this problem is long overdue.

The facts are startling. On average, hospitals conduct autopsies on only 5 percent of patients. Forty percent of all hospitals never perform an autopsy.

And when someone unexpectedly dies in the hospital, there is not a hard and fast rule that an autopsy will be performed by hospital physicians, coroners or medical examiners. Even the relatively small number of hospital deaths not classified as "natural" do not require - and usually don't lead to - an autopsy.

This trend of a dwindling number of autopsies reaches back several decades. In the 1950s, about half of all deaths were followed by autopsies. Through 1970, hospitals were required to autopsy about 25 percent of their deceased patients. However, hospitals no longer face such strict requirements to perform a certain number of autopsies in order to retain good standing among health care facilities and providers.

The nation's health insurance system also discourages the practice. The average cost of an autopsy is $1,275 - a cost that is not considered reimbursable "treatment" and as such, most private insurers and Medicare won't foot the bill. Hospitals are paid the same with or without an autopsy.

The report suggests that hospitals may be performing fewer autopsies due to concerns about medical malpractice and wrongful death claims by family members of misdiagnosed and mistreated patients.

To learn more about the report, check out our next blog post which will discuss the value of autopsies in more detail.

Source: ProPublica.org, "Without Autopsies, Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes."

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