The declining autopsy rate and clinicians' attitudes

Ulster Med J. 2000 Nov;69(2):83-9.


The autopsy rate has been declining worldwide for decades. This study determined the overall and differential autopsy rates for the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast for the years 1997-1999 inclusive. Trends were examined by comparison with previously collected data for the years 1990, 1991 and 1993. Reasons for the decline in autopsy rates as perceived by hospital clinicians were assessed by means of a questionnaire. Over the last decade, there has been a steady decline in the overall autopsy rate from 30.4% in 1990 to 18.4% in 1999. This is due to a decrease in the hospital autopsy rate from 21.6% in 1990 to 7.9% in 1999. The coroner's autopsy rate has remained comparatively unchanged at around 11%. The decline in the overall and hospital autopsy rates involves all of the principal bedholding directorates, but is most dramatic in medicine, surgery and intensive care, where hospital autopsy rates are currently 7% or less. The main reasons for this decline as perceived by clinicians are difficulty in obtaining consent from relatives and advances in modern diagnostic techniques. The findings of this enquiry are in keeping with trends elsewhere, despite repeated studies which clearly demonstrate the continuing value of the autopsy in clinical practice. Recent publicity concerning the retention of organs can only have an adverse affect. Pathologists and clinicians who value the autopsy must become actively engaged in both public and medical education. Renewed emphasis must be placed on the importance of the autopsy in teaching, training and clinically relevant research, and as a means of medical audit.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Autopsy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Ireland
  • Surveys and Questionnaires