Background: The purpose of this study was to find out whether autopsy of children with cancer should be recommended after terminal care, or whether in those circumstances it could be abandoned.
Patients and methods: One hundred pediatric patients with cancer treated at the Children's Hospital, University of Helsinki, Finland, died during 1987-92. Seventy children died while in organized terminal care. The underlying diagnoses were brain tumors (21), other solid tumors (24), and leukemias (25). The method was a retrospective analysis of patients' records and autopsy reports, in addition to a structured interview of the two parents separately.
Results: Autopsy was performed in 40 (57%) of these 70 cases. It was more often performed on children dying in hospital (69%) than in those dying at home (39%). The autopsy rate also varied with the underlying disease: 68% of patients with leukemia, 50% of those with solid tumors, and 52% of those with brain tumors were autopsied. Autopsy afforded totally new medical information in 20% of cases, and important additional information in 55%. Nothing unexpected was found in 25%. Almost all the parents (94%) who agreed to autopsy felt that it was appropriate. Of both mothers and fathers, 50% felt that knowing the findings at autopsy was helpful for them, and all the parents except one mother thought that the autopsy of their child would at least be helpful to other patients.
Conclusions: Autopsy often provides important and even unexpected information in those dying after terminal care. The majority of our parents felt that autopsy was an acceptable and appropriate practice. We recommend that autopsies should be performed, with the parents' consent, even after terminal care.