Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
An autopsy is the examination of the body of a dead person.
An autopsy may be restricted to a specific organ or region of the body.
Autopsies are performed to determine the cause of death, for legal purposes, and for education and research.
The body is opened in a manner that does not interfere with an open casket service.
The autopsy rate has dropped from 50% to less than 10% over the past fifty years.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy (also known as a post-mortem examination or necropsy) is the examination of the body of a dead person and is performed primarily to determine the cause of death, to identify or characterize the extent of disease states that the person may have had, or to determine whether a particular medical or surgical treatment has been effective. Autopsies are performed by pathologists, medical doctors who have received specialty training in the diagnosis of diseases by the examination of body fluids and tissues. In academic institutions, autopsies sometimes are also requested for teaching and research purposes. Forensic autopsies have legal implications and are performed to determine if death was an accident, homicide, suicide, or a natural event. The word autopsy is derived from the Greek word autopsia: "to see with one's own eyes."
Who determines whether an autopsy is performed?
A medical examiner can order an autopsy without the consent of the next-of-kin. Deaths that are investigated by the medical examiner or coroner include all suspicious deaths, and, depending upon the jurisdiction, may include deaths of persons not being treated by a physician for a known medical condition, deaths of those who have been under medical care for less than 24 hours, or deaths that occurred during operations or other medical procedures.
In all other cases, consent must be obtained from the next-of-kin before an autopsy is performed, even at academic institutions or hospitals. The next-of-kin also has the right to limit the scope of the autopsy (for example, excluding the brain from evaluation or limiting the procedure to examination of the abdomen).
Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
Viewer Question: Who has access to the information obtained from an autopsy? Can this information (e.g. about hereditary diseases or conditions that may run in our family) be obtained by third parties?
Doctor's Response: The same rules of doctor-patient confidentiality apply to autopsy examinations as to medical records of living patients. This means that doctors are not allowed to reveal the results of an autopsy examination to third parties without the permission of the next-of-kin of the deceased.
In many medical centers, the autopsy report is first submitted to the physician who treated the patient; the treating physician then shares the findings with the family. The family (next-of-kin) is always entitled to receive a copy of the autopsy report. The hospital is not allowed to give out any information about an autopsy or to respond to inquiries about an autopsy from any third parties. Of course, the family may choose to share the information with anyone they wish, but they must give written permission for the hospital to release autopsy records, just as with any medical records.