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Hospitals avoid autopsies to evade malpractice liability (two)

Earlier this week, we discussed the troubling fact that few hospitals regularly perform autopsies on deceased patients today. In teaching hospitals, which have a mission of educating young medical professionals, the autopsy rate is currently around 20 percent. Private and community hospitals, which make up about 80 percent of such facilities in New Jersey and throughout the U.S., rarely conduct autopsies.

Cost is a significant reason for the drop in autopsy rates. But many believe that hospitals are choosing not to perform autopsies in order to avoid any potential medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits that may arise once family members learn of the cause of their loved one's death.

In general, when a patient dies in a hospital, his or her death is considered natural. When deaths are unobserved, unexplained, or when they occur within 24 hours of the patient's admission, hospitals may be required to refer the fatality to medical examiners. However, it is unlikely that the referral will actually end up with an autopsy being performed.

In a 2002 review of academic studies, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that "major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death" were found in one out of every four patients autopsied. Alarmingly, that error had been severe enough to cause the patient's death in one out of 10 cases studied.

Critics of the study claim that autopsies are generally performed in the most complex cases in which diagnostic errors are most likely, and that therefore the study results are skewed. But when less than 5 percent of all deceased patients are autopsied, how can we be sure of their cause of death?

If you believe your loved one has died as a result of medical malpractice, please contact Breslin & Breslin for a free consultation.

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

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