Requesting an Autopsy When a Loved One Dies

Posted by Thomas & Wickenheiser on Aug 1, 2019 8:53:00 AM

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We’ve all heard the troubling news out of the Dominican Republic – at the time of this publishing, nine American tourists have died while on vacation in that country over the last year. Even more concerning are reports authorities have pressured families to cremate remains instead of bringing their loved one’s body back to the states for burial. Because of the national and international press coverage and increasing pressure for answers, the FBI is now in the country investigating.

Certainly, the grief of those families whose loved ones didn’t return home is profound, and they need answers. But, what of untimely deaths closer to home? It’s not surprising that there are higher rates of death in the U.S. for individuals who are hospitalized or in nursing homes. And, many of those deaths are a result of illness, disease, or aging.

However, that is not always the case. According to a 2016 Johns Hopkins study last year, 10 percent of all U.S. deaths could be attributed to medical error making it the third highest cause of death in the country and a major under-recognized mortality factor. In fact, the number is probably much higher as the CDC relies on death certificates for their statistical data and those certificates rarely list human or system failures as a cause of death.

Yet, despite that, far fewer autopsies are performed today than ever before. (According to the CDC, 19.3 percent of all deaths were autopsied in 1972. In 2007, that percentage had declined to 8.5 percent.)

When a loved one dies while under the care of a medical professional or in an institutional setting and you have questions surrounding their care and treatment, you may feel angry and helpless. Depending on the circumstances of the death, a physician, medical examiner, or legal authority might order an autopsy to learn more. In this case, the family can also benefit from gaining more insight into the cause of death. But, if that doesn’t happen, and you have questions surrounding the death, you have a right to request an autopsy be performed.  

If you are considering your options after a loved one dies, here are some things you need to know:

Why do an autopsy? If you have any questions about care, treatment, or anything that may have contributed to your loved one’s demise, only an autopsy can help you determine the exact cause of death and serve as best evidence. Even if you don’t suspect malpractice or negligence, an autopsy can help in providing reassurance and answers.

Who can request an autopsy? According to American Forensics, any family member or close friend of the deceased may request an autopsy subject to proper authorization.

Who does the autopsy? The hospital can perform the autopsy at the request of the attending physician or family.  You can also request an outside or private autopsy.

How soon should an autopsy be done? Timing is critical. It should be done as soon as possible (within 24 hours if possible) for best information. However, even autopsies performed later can yield valuable results.

Who pays? Insurance does not typically cover autopsies, nor do Medicare or Medicaid. Some hospitals will perform requested autopsies free of charge.  Private pay can run into the thousands of dollars.

There are other options for gathering additional information after the death of a loved one, including hiring an outside expert to review medical records and internal autopsy reports, or requesting a second autopsy if you doubt the results of the first. State laws governing autopsies vary. Consulting an attorney experienced in working with families in cases of suspected malpractice or negligence can be a good place to start.

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