Background: This study examined the ability of autopsy to confirm or dispute presumptive cause of death among cardiac surgery patients.
Methods: Autopsy reports were compared with mortality conference notes that were dictated prospectively before autopsy results were available. Between January 1985 and December 1995, there were 600 hospital deaths among 13,029 adult cardiac surgery patients (4.6% mortality). Of these 600 deaths, 147 (24.5%) had postmortem examination.
Results: Annual autopsy rate remained constant over the course of the study. Autopsied patients were younger (60.4 +/- 15 versus 66.7 +/- 13 years [mean +/- standard error of the mean]; p < 0.0001), but their race and sex distributions were similar to deceased patients not having autopsy. Autopsy confirmed clinical presumptive cause of death in 52% (76), disputed clinical diagnosis in 9.5% (14), provided definitive diagnosis in the absence of clinical diagnosis in 13.6% (20), and failed to provide definitive diagnosis in 25% (37). One third of autopsies (39%; 57) provided information that was clinically unrecognized and might have altered therapy and outcome if known premortem. As determined by autopsy, common causes of death were cardiac (27%; 39), unknown (25%; 37), sepsis (14%; 21), stroke (8.8%; 13), cholesterol embolism (4.1%; 6), pulmonary embolism (4.1%; 6), and adult respiratory distress syndrome (4.1%; 6).
Conclusions: Autopsy reveals or confirms cause of death in nearly three quarters of cardiac surgical deaths and provides information that differs significantly from premortem clinical impression more than 20% of the time. As such, the autopsy remains important to quality assurance in cardiac surgical care.