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Hospitals avoid autopsies to evade malpractice liability (one)

If a member of your family suddenly and inexplicably passed away at a hospital or medical facility, you would certainly want to know the reason for his or her death. However, in most hospitals today, that most likely won't be an option. This is because many health care facilities have phased out autopsies almost completely, largely due to cost and apprehension about medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits being filed against them.

Fifty years ago, hospitals autopsied nearly all patients who died in their care in order to determine the cause of death. But in 1971, the commission in charge of accreditation for health care facilities decided that it would no longer require hospitals to conduct autopsies. Since then, the number of autopsies conducted at both community and private hospitals have plummeted. Now, just 5 percent of deceased patients receive autopsies after their death.

By not performing autopsies, hospitals and researchers are losing out on the knowledge that is often gained through an investigation into the cause of death and the events that led up to it. Much of the advances made in medical treatment came about because of autopsies, so it is disheartening to think of the potential discoveries that are being missed.

There are many reasons that hospitals have largely done away with autopsies. One main factor is cost. On average, autopsies cost about $1,300. Medicare and private insurance companies generally do not pay for them, limiting hospital reimbursement to procedures used to treat living patients. Therefore, autopsies are an expense that many financially strapped hospitals cannot afford.

But many critics believe that hospitals and doctors avoid autopsies in order to evade liability for errors and other malpractice that may have contributed to the death of a patient. We will discuss that possibility in a blog post later this week.

Source: ProPublica, "Without Autopsies, Hospitals Bury Their Mistakes," Marshall Allen, Dec. 15, 2011

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