Several things can interfere
with the autopsy and the results.
Ideally, an autopsy should be done in a timely
fashion, generally within several days of death. In some cases, such as
evaluation for metabolic disease in an unborn baby (fetus) or
infant, prompt tissue sampling is important to improve the likelihood of
establishing a diagnosis. But even after a number of days, an autopsy may still
provide useful information.
The training and experience of the
pathologist may influence the quality of the autopsy. Access to consultant
pathologists with training in specialized areas and to other experts, such as
toxicologists and geneticists, may be helpful in complicated cases. For
example, neuropathologists have special expertise in the diagnosis of
neurological (brain) diseases; pediatric pathologists may have special
expertise in diseases of infants or unborn babies. Families may wish to talk with
their doctor for assistance in finding a competent, experienced
Autopsy procedures may differ for each deceased person
depending on the medical history of the person, the circumstances surrounding
the death, questions the person's doctors and family members would like
answered, and the findings at the initial dissection. It is important that the
family members and doctors discuss their questions and concerns with the
pathologist before the autopsy is performed, so that the autopsy can be
individualized and samples can be obtained that may allow performance of
specialized tests. Samples may not be retained for specialized tests (such as
genetic, toxicology, or paternity testing) unless specific requests are made at
the time of the autopsy.
Autopsy is not an accepted procedure for
some cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. If an autopsy is not required by
law because of the circumstances of death, it will not be performed unless the
family gives specific permission.
What To Think About
Organ or tissue removal for donation purposes
requires separate permission from an autopsy.
If a family requests an autopsy, the consent form generally
describes the details of the autopsy, especially with respect to retention of
organs and tissues for teaching. The requesting family member should make sure
that the details of the autopsy are fully understood.
A family can
request that a hospital do an autopsy on a person who died there. In some
hospitals there is no charge for this service. In some teaching hospitals, a
person who died outside of the hospital (for example, at a nursing home or at
home) may be autopsied at the hospital at no charge. If an autopsy is required
by law, there is no charge to the family. But charges should be clarified
before the procedure is performed since many hospitals charge for autopsies and
insurance generally does not pay for autopsies.
An autopsy does not
prevent the body from being viewed in an open casket. Generally, none of the
incisions made during the autopsy will show after the body is prepared for
viewing. The rare exception to this is with autopsies in which injuries on the
face, scalp, or hands are evaluated. These autopsies may leave some marks that
are visible during viewing of the body.
If an autopsy is being
performed at the request of the family, the family may request that the
examination be restricted or limited to certain parts of the body. It is
important to discuss these restrictions with the pathologist to ensure that the
requested examination allows the pathologist to answer the family's questions
about the death.
Autopsies to determine natural causes of death are
not done as often now as they were in the past. But when death has most likely
occurred from natural disease, an autopsy can uncover information that is very
valuable to the deceased person's doctor and family.