Attitudes toward the autopsy—an 8-state survey

Peter N Nemetz, Eric Tanglos, Laura P Sands, William P Fisher, William P Newman, Elizabeth C Burton
MedGenMed: Medscape General Medicine 2006 September 21, 8 (3): 80

CONTEXT: National autopsy rates have declined for several decades, and the reasons for such decline remain contentious.

OBJECTIVE: To elicit the opinions of one group of crucial decision makers as to the reasons for this decline and possible modes of reversal.

DESIGN: A 2-part survey, composed of multiple choice questions and questions requesting specific data on autopsy rates and costs.

SETTING: Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

PARTICIPANTS: Hospital administrators within the 8 states.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Six-point survey scale relating to reasons for autopsy decline and possible remedial measures, as well as estimates of autopsy rates and costs.

RESULTS: The response rate was 43% and the median autopsy rate was 2.4% (mean 6.1%). The median cost of autopsy was estimated at $852 (mean $1275). Larger hospitals were associated with higher autopsy rates than smaller hospitals (9.6% vs 4.0%), and teaching hospitals had a significantly higher autopsy rate than nonteaching institutions (11.4% vs 3.8%). Autopsy rates also varied by type of hospital control, with federal government hospitals having the highest autopsy rate at 15.1%. Sixty-six percent of all respondents agreed that current autopsy rates were adequate. Of the respondents, the highest percent (86%) agreed that improved diagnostics contributed to the decline in autopsies, and the highest percent (78%) agreed that direct payment to pathologists for autopsies under the physician fee schedule might lead to an increase in autopsies.

CONCLUSIONS: Our data support the conclusion that the decline in autopsy performance is multifactorial, although the variable that dominates in this analysis is the contentious perception that improved diagnostic technology renders the autopsy redundant. The rate of autopsy is conditional, at least in part, on individual hospital characteristics such as large hospital size, teaching status, and federal ownership. Three underlying factors may explain these associations: resources, mission, and case mix. An important factor in declining autopsy rates appears to be the changing economic landscape, with its increased focus on cost control within both the public and private healthcare sectors.

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