Changes in rates of autopsy-detected diagnostic errors over time: a systematic review

JAMA. 2003 Jun 4;289(21):2849-56. doi: 10.1001/jama.289.21.2849.


Context: Substantial discrepanies exist between clinical diagnoses and findings at autopsy. Autopsy may be used as a tool for quality management to analyze diagnostic discrepanies.

Objective: To determine the rate at which autopsies detect important, clinically missed diagnoses, and the extent to which this rate has changed over time.

Data sources: A systematic literature search for English-language articles available on MEDLINE from 1966 to April 2002, using the search terms autopsy, postmortem changes, post-mortem, postmortem, necropsy, and posthumous, identified 45 studies reporting 53 distinct autopsy series meeting prospectively defined criteria. Reference lists were reviewed to identify additional studies, and the final bibliography was distributed to experts in the field to identify missing or unpublished studies.

Study selection: Included studies reported clinically missed diagnoses involving a primary cause of death (major errors), with the most serious being those likely to have affected patient outcome (class I errors).

Data extraction: Logistic regression was performed using data from 53 distinct autopsy series over a 40-year period and adjusting for the effects of changes in autopsy rates, country, case mix (general autopsies; adult medical; adult intensive care; adult or pediatric surgery; general pediatrics or pediatric inpatients; neonatal or pediatric intensive care; and other autopsy), and important methodological features of the primary studies.

Data synthesis: Of 53 autopsy series identified, 42 reported major errors and 37 reported class I errors. Twenty-six autopsy series reported both major and class I error rates. The median error rate was 23.5% (range, 4.1%-49.8%) for major errors and 9.0% (range, 0%-20.7%) for class I errors. Analyses of diagnostic error rates adjusting for the effects of case mix, country, and autopsy rate yielded relative decreases per decade of 19.4% (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.8%-33.8%) for major errors and 33.4% (95% [CI], 8.4%-51.6%) for class I errors. Despite these decreases, we estimated that a contemporary US institution (based on autopsy rates ranging from 100% [the extrapolated extreme at which clinical selection is eliminated] to 5% [roughly the national average]), could observe a major error rate from 8.4% to 24.4% and a class I error rate from 4.1% to 6.7%.

Conclusion: The possibility that a given autopsy will reveal important unsuspected diagnoses has decreased over time, but remains sufficiently high that encouraging ongoing use of the autopsy appears warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cause of Death
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Treatment Outcome
  • United States