Discrepancies between clinical and autopsy diagnosis and the value of post mortem histology; a meta-analysis and review

Histopathology. 2005 Dec;47(6):551-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2559.2005.02243.x.


The autopsy is in decline, despite the fact that accurate mortality statistics remain essential for public health and health service planning. The falling autopsy rate combined with the Coroners Review and Human Tissue Act have contributed to this decline, and to a falling use of autopsy histology, with potential impact on clinical audit and mortality statistics. At a time when the need for reform and improvement in the death certification process is so prominent, we felt it important to assess the value of the autopsy and autopsy histology. We carried out a meta-analysis of discrepancies between clinical and autopsy diagnoses and the contribution of autopsy histology. There has been little improvement in the overall rate of discrepancies between the 1960s and the present. At least a third of death certificates are likely to be incorrect and 50% of autopsies produce findings unsuspected before death. In addition, the cases which give rise to discrepancies cannot be identified prior to autopsy. Over 20% of clinically unexpected autopsy findings, including 5% of major findings, can be correctly diagnosed only by histological examination. Although the autopsy and particularly autopsy histology are being undermined, they are still the most accurate method of determining the cause of death and auditing accuracy of clinical diagnosis, diagnostic tests and death certification.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Distribution
  • Autopsy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cause of Death*
  • Death Certificates
  • Diagnosis*
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Histology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity