Autopsy Q&A by Dr. Stöppler
Autopsies are performed by pathologists, physicians who have received special training in the diagnosis of diseases based upon the examination of organs and tissues. To become a board-certified pathologist, a physician spends four to five years of specialty training (residency) in a hospital pathology department and must pass a detailed examination. During the autopsy, pathologists may be assisted by pathology residents (physicians in training to become pathologists) or medical students. Pathology assistants (medical technologists who have been trained to assist in the performance of autopsies, maintain the autopsy suite, and prepare of bodies for delivery to funeral homes) are also involved as assistants in the autopsy procedure.
In most cases, autopsies are performed by the pathologist(s) on the staff of the hospital where the deceased person received medical care. These are generally the same pathologists who evaluate biopsy specimens from patients in the hospital and patients who are treated by a physician at this hospital on an outpatient basis. Families may also arrange for private pathologists (unaffiliated with the hospital) to perform an autopsy if they so choose, but they will be asked to bear the costs of the private autopsy.
Sometimes, the physician who has treated a patient will request to be present during an autopsy. In this case the treating physician is an observer during the case and does not perform the autopsy. It is often the practice in teaching hospitals for the pathologist to do autopsy demonstrations for physicians, residents, and medical students who took care of the patient as an important educational tool.
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Last Editorial Review: 12/12/2006