Resident physician opinions on autopsy importance and procurement

Mindy J Hull, Rosalynn M Nazarian, Amy E Wheeler, W Stephen Black-Schaffer, Eugene J Mark
Human Pathology 2007, 38 (2): 342-50
The national decline in hospital autopsy cases negatively impacts physician education and medical quality control to an unknown degree. The current non-medicolegal autopsy rate is less than 5% of hospital deaths. This study compares internal medicine and pathology resident physician perceptions of the autopsy, including the importance, procurement, technique, and the pathologist-internist interaction. An 84-item survey based on autopsy literature was designed, piloted, and distributed to 214 residents at a single 800+ bed tertiary care academic teaching hospital (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston) to accomplish this goal. Completed surveys were obtained from 72% of medicine (n = 118) and 84% of pathology (n = 42) residents. Residents strongly agree on the importance of autopsies for education, answering clinical questions, public health, and research. Autopsy rates are deemed inadequate. Internists are comfortable requesting autopsies, but report insufficient guidance and difficulty with answering technical questions. Although not requested on all hospital deaths, internists are more likely to initiate an autopsy request than a decedent's family, and worry significantly less about institutional costs and malpractice litigation than pathologists believe. Internists expressed interest in having an instructional brochure to give families, observing an autopsy, and having increased communication and support with autopsies from pathology residents. The main reasons why autopsy consent is not requested (it is unpleasant, cause of death is known, family is upset or seems unwilling) and why families refuse (patient has suffered enough, body may be handled disrespectfully, religious/moral objections, lack information) were similar for both resident groups. Despite their decline, autopsies still remain important to medicine as indicated by internal medicine and pathology residents at a large academic center. Improving autopsy education, enhancing availability of resources, and strengthening the pathologist-internist collaboration may serve to heighten awareness and ultimately procurement.

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