Hospital Autopsies On the Decline

February 6, 2012

If you or a loved one dies in a hospital, there is only a 5 percent chance an autopsy will be performed. This number, down from about 20 percent prior to 1971, has broad implications: Families might not have certain answers as to how a loved one died, and inaccurate data could be passed along to public health officials, who then use it to make policy decisions.

There’s also, of course, a powerful financial incentive:

An autopsy costs about $1,275, according to a survey of hospitals in eight states. But Medicare and private insurers don’t pay for them directly, typically limiting reimbursement to procedures used to diagnose and treat the living. Medicare bundles payments for autopsies into overall payments to hospitals for quality assurance, increasing the incentive to skip them, said Dr. John Sinard, director of autopsy service for the Yale University School of Medicine.

“The hospital is going to get the money whether they do the autopsy or not, so the autopsy just becomes an expense,” Sinard said.

This past weekend, NPR — our partner along with ProPublica on Post Mortem, our series on death investigation in America — aired a new story on the decline in hospital autopsies. Have a listen:

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