A prospective study of 1152 hospital autopsies: I. Inaccuracies in death certification

J Pathol. 1981 Apr;133(4):273-83. doi: 10.1002/path.1711330402.


Comparison of certified clinical diagnoses with autopsy findings showed that, while the major cause of death was confirmed in 61 per cent. of cases, many diagnoses--both major and contributory--were wrong; many clinical diagnoses were either disproved or relegated to a less important role, and many autopsy findings had not apparently been anticipated. Accuracy was particularly poor in some clinical categories: notably cerebrovascular disease and infections. In these, the diagnosis was more often wrong than right. Thus, death certificates are unreliable as a source of diagnostic data. The clinician's confidence in his major diagnosis bore a fairly close relationship to the frequency of its confirmation. Nevertheless, even when certified as "fairly certain", the major diagnosis was wrong in about one-quarter of these cases. An attempt was made to assess the significance of incorrect diagnoses; one half of these might be clinically significant. Diagnostic accuracy did not improve with the time spent in hospital, and it bore an inverse relationship to the patient's age.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Autopsy
  • Death Certificates*
  • Diagnostic Errors*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies