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Declining autopsy rates in UK hospitals may damage patient safety and healthcare quality

Post mortems are on the ‘verge of extinction’ in UK hospitals, reveals a survey that raises questions about the impact of the decline on patient safety and clinical audit.

The practice of post mortems is on the ‘verge of extinction’ in hospitals

Picture credit: SPL

Researchers based the findings on freedom of information requests to 160 acute NHS trusts in England, seven in Wales, five in Northern Ireland, and 14 health boards in Scotland.

The average post mortem rate was just over half of 1% of all hospitals deaths (0.69%), with the lowest rate in Northern Ireland (0.46%) and the highest in Scotland (2.12%). In England, the post mortem rate was 0.51% and in Wales 0.65%. The procedure had disappeared completely in almost one in four trusts (23%).

Little has been done to address the ‘relentless’ decline that has accelerated in recent years, write the researchers.

‘For better or worse, the practice is on the verge of extinction,’ they add. ‘Hospital autopsy now accounts for approximately 1.2% of total autopsies. With such low numbers, questions must be asked regarding the effect such decline has on quality assurance, public health, misdiagnosis (a key contributor to avoidable harms), audit, and the teaching of both medical students and trainee pathologists.’

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