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 (also known as a post-mortem examination or
obduction) 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. In academic institutions, autopsies
sometimes are also requested for teaching and research purposes. Forensic
autopsies are autopsies with 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."
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.
Who determines whether an autopsy is performed?
A physician cannot order an autopsy on a patient without
the consent of the next-of-kin. 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) if he/she wishes.
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.