Background: The rate of autopsy in hospital deaths has declined from more than 50% to 2.4% over the past 50 yr. To understand the role of autopsies in anesthesia malpractice claims, we examined 980 closed claims for deaths that occurred in 1990 or later in the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims Project Database.
Methods: Deaths with autopsy were compared with deaths without autopsy. Deaths with autopsy were evaluated to answer the following four questions: Did autopsy findings establish a cause of death? Did autopsy provide new information? Did autopsy identify a significant nonanesthetic contribution to death? Did autopsy help or hurt the defense of the anesthesiologist? Reliability was assessed by κ scores. Differences between groups were compared with chi-square analysis and Kolmogorov-Smirnov test with P < 0.05 for statistical significance.
Results: Autopsies were performed in 551 (56%) of 980 claims for death. Evaluable autopsy information was available in 288 (52%) of 551 claims with autopsy. Patients in these 288 claims were younger and healthier than those in claims for death without autopsy (P < 0.01). Autopsy provided pathologic diagnoses and an unequivocal cause of death in 21% of these 288 claims (κ= 0.71). An unexpected pathologic diagnosis was found in 50% of claims with evaluable autopsy information (κ = 0.59). Autopsy identified a significant nonanesthetic contribution in 61% (κ = 0.64) of these 288 claims. Autopsy helped in the defense of the anesthesiologist in 55% of claims and harmed the defense in 27% (κ = 0.58) of claims with evaluable autopsy information.
Conclusions: Autopsy findings were more often helpful than harmful in the medicolegal defense of anesthesiologists. Autopsy identified a significant nonanesthetic contribution to death in two thirds of claims with evaluable autopsy information.