Autopsy Q&A by Dr. Stöppler

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?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Söppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

Answer:

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.

If an autopsy is to be performed at a teaching hospital, the case may be discussed at teaching conferences, or the procedure or findings may be viewed by medical students and residents for teaching purposes. These individuals are also bound by the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality and may not disclose autopsy findings to third parties.

One exception to this rule is that results of autopsies performed for medicolegal investigations (those required by the coroner or medical examiner in cases of suspicious deaths) may be released to police or other authorities and may be discussed in court proceedings open to the public. In these cases autopsies may also be ordered by the coroner or medical examiner, and obtaining consent from relatives of the deceased is not required.

Thank you for your question.


Last Editorial Review: 12/4/2006