Comparison of Clinical Diagnoses and Autopsy Findings: Six-Year Retrospective Study

Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2017 Sep;141(9):1262-1266. doi: 10.5858/arpa.2016-0488-OA. Epub 2017 Jun 28.


Context: - The frequency of autopsies has declined in most developed countries beginning in the latter half of the 20th century. During this time period the technology of medicine made significant advances; however, it is important to regularly reevaluate the role of the autopsy to confirm suspected diagnoses and identify unsuspected findings.

Objective: - To determine what portion of autopsies reveal clinically meaningful unexpected findings.

Design: - Reports that included clinical histories of autopsies performed at Jackson Memorial Hospital during the 6 years between 2009 and 2014 were reviewed by 2 pathologists. Each case was classified using the Goldman Classification.

Results: - In the given time period, 923 autopsies were performed; 512 patients (55.5%) were adults. A total of 334 cases were subject to review after excluding those with a short (<1 day) hospital stay, restriction to a single organ or body cavity, and cases referred from other facilities. A total of 33 of 334 cases (9.9%) were identified as class I discrepancy, where the autopsy revealed a discrepant diagnosis with a potential impact on survival or treatment. Critical findings, such as untreated infection (15 of 33 cases; 45.5%), pulmonary embolism (8 of 33 cases; 24.2%), and undiagnosed malignancy (6 of 33 cases; 18.2%), were found in these cases. Major significant findings that had not been clinically detected, whether clinically manageable or not (class I and II), were found in 65 of 334 cases (19.5%).

Conclusion: - Despite intensive modern clinical investigations, autopsies continue to reveal major antemortem diagnostic errors in a significant number of cases.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Autopsy*
  • Cause of Death*
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult