The decline of the hospital autopsy: a safety and quality issue for healthcare in Australia

Med J Aust. 2004 Mar 15;180(6):281-5. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2004.tb05926.x.


Even with new diagnostic modalities, autopsy remains an important tool for quality and safety assurance. A systematic review of reports from 1996 to 2002 found autopsies detected, on average, 23.5% of clinically missed diagnoses involving the principal or underlying cause of death, and 9% of errors that would or could have affected the patient's outcome. We surveyed pathology laboratories and hospital administrators across Australia, and found a decline in the hospital autopsy rate from 21% (210/1000 deaths) in 1992-93 to 12% (118/1000 deaths) in 2002-03. This decrease is in adult autopsies (66% of all autopsies in 1992-93; 39% in 2002-03). Perinatal autopsies increased from 29% to 58% of all autopsies in this period, mainly due to more examinations of fetuses less than 20 weeks' gestation. Factors contributing to this decline may include community attitudes, clinicians' reluctance to request autopsy (partly because of administrative burdens in making the request), hospital concern about legal action if a misdiagnosis is detected, and funding priorities. Reversing this decline will require cooperative action at several levels of the healthcare system, and from government bodies.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Australia
  • Autopsy / economics
  • Autopsy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cause of Death
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control*
  • Health Care Costs
  • Health Services Needs and Demand*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Pathology Department, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Pathology Department, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Quality of Health Care*
  • Risk Management*