Unexpected findings in trauma patients dying in the intensive care unit: results of 153 consecutive autopsies

J Am Coll Surg. 2002 Apr;194(4):401-6. doi: 10.1016/s1072-7515(02)01123-7.


Background: The true incidence of missed injuries in trauma-related deaths is unknown, because in only about 60% of injury-related deaths nationwide is an autopsy performed. Few studies have documented the frequency of missed diagnoses leading to deaths specifically in the trauma ICU population. We attempted to evaluate the incidence and nature of missed injuries and complications in trauma- and burn-related deaths in our ICU given an autopsy rate of close to 100%.

Study design: The medical records of all trauma- and burn-related deaths in the ICU over a 2-year period were reviewed retrospectively. Missed diagnoses were classified as class 1: major diagnosis that if recognized and treated appropriately might have changed outcomes; class II: major diagnosis that if recognized and treated appropriately would not have changed outcomes; and class III: minor diagnosis.

Results: Complete antemortem records were available for 158 patients, of which 153 (97%) underwent autopsy. Mean age was 50 years, and 72% were males. Mean ICU stay was 10 15 days. Four (3%) patients had class I missed diagnoses: bowel infarction, meningitis, retroperitoneal abscess, and bleeding gastric ulcer. Twenty-five (16%) patients had class II diagnoses, and 12 (8%) patients had class III diagnoses. Overall, 81% of 153 patients had either class III diagnoses or no missed injuries or complications. Pneumonia was the most common missed diagnosis.

Conclusions: With an autopsy rate of 97%, 3% of deaths bad missed major diagnoses that might have affected outcomes if recognized antemortem. Autopsy findings can still provide valuable feedback in Improving the quality of care of critically ill trauma patients.

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy / statistics & numerical data
  • Burns / mortality*
  • Cause of Death
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Injury Severity Score
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Wounds and Injuries / diagnosis
  • Wounds and Injuries / mortality*