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Medical malpractice evidence lost without routine autopsies: Part 2

As discussed in the previous post, a recent series by ProPublica and NPR takes a hard look at the death investigation system in America and its flaws. One recent issue taken up by ProPublica is the downward trend in hospitals performing routine autopsies. Fifty years ago these autopsies were common, particularly if a person's death was unexpected or sudden.

The autopsies helped doctors develop more knowledge by learning whether their diagnosis was correct or whether they missed something important. Hospitals now rarely do autopsies and insurance companies do not pay for them, and one reason why could be to avoid medical malpractice accusations if the autopsy shows that a doctor made a medical error or misdiagnosis.

A story highlighted by ProPublica is that of a well-known cancer researcher who died suddenly a couple of days after she was diagnosed with cancer of the hip. The hospital that diagnosed her was not going to do an autopsy nor was the medical examiner, but her doctor friends and her husband insisted on one and they did it independently. It was found that her whole body was riddled with cancer and she probably died from a blood cot caused by a tumor.

The problem with neglecting to do routine autopsies is that doctors never learn what they did wrong and they may continue to make the same mistakes on the next patient. This means lost opportunities to advance medical treatments and diagnostic knowledge. Diagnostic errors are common and doctors -- and, at least, the families of their deceased patients -- should know when fatal mistakes were made.

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

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