Everything you need to know about a post mortem examination
If you have a loved one who passed away unexpectedly and they require a post mortem examination, you may be wondering why the exam is necessary and what it entails. A post mortem examination can be conducted for a variety of reasons, but is usually performed at the request of a coroner or doctor to determine the cause of death of a person after a sudden death. Once you understand the basic post mortem examination and how the process works, you will know what to expect and can begin planning funeral arrangements when the autopsy is completed.
What is a post mortem exam?
Post mortem exams, or autopsies, are performed by pathologists, medical doctors with specialty training in the diagnosis of diseases by examining body fluids and tissues. An autopsy is an examination of the body that takes place after death primarily performed to determine the cause of death. It can include a physical examination, a more detailed examination of the internal organs, and other lab work.
How is a post mortem exam performed?
Not every exam is the same. The extent of an autopsy can be limited to a single organ or it can be a full body examination. The standard scope of the autopsy is examination of the chest, abdomen, and brain. The average autopsy has two parts.
External examination: First the pathologist will conduct a complete external examination of the body. They will record the weight, height, and any identifying marks such as scars and tattoos.
Internal examination: For further information, the pathologist will perform an internal examination. The doctor will create an incision from the shoulders to the pubic bone to expose the internal organs. An additional incision is made in the back of the skull to access the brain. The pathologist will first examine the organs with the naked eye. They may also remove organs to take tissue samples, run toxicology reports, or perform biochemical tests to determine the cause or causes of death. Small samples of human tissue are typically taken from organs for further examination under a microscope for diagnostic purposes. If any organs are removed from the body during the examination, the pathologist will carefully return them once the exam is complete.
When is a post mortem exam performed?
Autopsies are most frequently performed in cases of sudden death, when a doctor does not have adequate information to write a death certificate, or when the cause of death is unknown or presumed unnatural. The exam is usually requested by the coroner investigating the death or by a hospital doctor.
If a coroner requests a post mortem exam, the family does not have to consent to the exam because it is a legal matter. However, if a hospital doctor requests the examination, the next of kin will need sign a consent form or the pathologist cannot perform the autopsy. When a doctor requests the exam, it is usually to learn more about a disease or a specific cause of death for research purposes or medical history for the family.
A family can also request that a post mortem exam is performed on their loved one, though this is less common because private autopsies are expensive. They are not covered under Medicare, Medicaid, or most insurance plans, and your healthcare provider will likely charge you for the autopsy. A private autopsy can cost between $3,000 and $5,000, and the family may also need to pay to transport the body.
If your loved one passed away at a teaching hospital, they may not charge for a private autopsy if the examination is performed in their facility.
How long does the exam take?
The examination itself usually takes under five hours to perform, though results may take longer. Preliminary results can sometimes be released within 24 hours, while the full results of an autopsy can take up to six weeks to prepare.
What happens after a post mortem examination?
After the pathologist completes the exam, they will write up a report of their findings. The pathologist will then issue release papers so you can arrange for the funeral home of your choice to transport your loved one.
At this point, you will need to begin making funeral arrangements and choose a funeral home to collect your loved one into their care. If you choose to host a viewing, the funeral home should be able to minimize any noticeable cosmetic evidence of the autopsy and prepare your loved one for the service. Alternatively, you could choose direct cremation – the simplest and most affordable funeral option. If you choose direct cremation, the funeral home will collect your loved one from the pathologist, file all necessary paperwork, perform the cremation, and return the ashes to you.
How you can access the post mortem report depends on who requested the exam. If the coroner requested the exam, they will contact you directly to let you know the cause of death. You can also request a formal copy of the report from the coroner for a small fee.
If a doctor in a hospital requested the autopsy, you will need to communicate with the hospital directly. You may need to pay a fee to access the results. Some hospitals will allow you to arrange a meeting to discuss the results with the doctor to understand the findings of the examination.
The same rules of doctor-patient confidentiality that apply to the medical records of patients govern who can see a post mortem report. A doctor or pathologist cannot reveal the results of a post mortem examination to any third parties without the permission of the the Next of Kin of the deceased.
Benefits of a post mortem examination
Autopsies can sometimes be a cause of distress for families. They can delay funeral services and lengthen the grieving process for families. Though autopsies may be stressful, they also have certain benefits.
- Public service: An autopsy can help doctors to better understand how certain diseases progress and affect the human body. Performing autopsies can help further medical research and improve care for others.
- Family medical history: Autopsies can help families learn about undiagnosed illnesses or causes of diseases that may be hereditary. Pathologists use certain techniques that aren’t available to doctors when the patient is alive, which help to reveal diseases that were previously unknown to physicians and could help the family members of the diseased learn of hereditary medical conditions.
- Evidence: The most common understanding of autopsies is to provide legal evidence. Autopsies can provide evidence for homicide cases and determine if the death was a result of a work or environmental hazard or medical malpractice.
- Closure: When a family doesn’t understand the cause of death of their loved one, it can make grieving especially difficult. Autopsies can help families and loved ones to find closure and peace after death and understand the causes of diseases that could also affect other family members.
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