Context Substantial discrepanies exist between clinical diagnoses and findings
at autopsy. Autopsy may be used as a tool for quality management to analyze
Objective To determine the rate at which autopsies detect important, clinically
missed diagnoses, and the extent to which this rate has changed over time.
Data Sources A systematic literature search for English-language articles available
on MEDLINE from 1966 to April 2002, using the search terms autopsy, postmortem changes, post-mortem, postmortem, necropsy, and posthumous, identified 45 studies
reporting 53 distinct autopsy series meeting prospectively defined criteria.
Reference lists were reviewed to identify additional studies, and the final
bibliography was distributed to experts in the field to identify missing or
Study Selection Included studies reported clinically missed diagnoses involving a primary
cause of death (major errors), with the most serious being those likely to
have affected patient outcome (class I errors).
Data Extraction Logistic regression was performed using data from 53 distinct autopsy
series over a 40-year period and adjusting for the effects of changes in autopsy
rates, country, case mix (general autopsies; adult medical; adult intensive
care; adult or pediatric surgery; general pediatrics or pediatric inpatients;
neonatal or pediatric intensive care; and other autopsy), and important methodological
features of the primary studies.
Data Synthesis Of 53 autopsy series identified, 42 reported major errors and 37 reported
class I errors. Twenty-six autopsy series reported both major and class I
error rates. The median error rate was 23.5% (range, 4.1%-49.8%) for major
errors and 9.0% (range, 0%-20.7%) for class I errors. Analyses of diagnostic
error rates adjusting for the effects of case mix, country, and autopsy rate
yielded relative decreases per decade of 19.4% (95% confidence interval [CI],
1.8%-33.8%) for major errors and 33.4% (95% [CI], 8.4%-51.6%) for class I
errors. Despite these decreases, we estimated that a contemporary US institution
(based on autopsy rates ranging from 100% [the extrapolated extreme at which
clinical selection is eliminated] to 5% [roughly the national average]), could
observe a major error rate from 8.4% to 24.4% and a class I error rate from
4.1% to 6.7%.
Conclusion The possibility that a given autopsy will reveal important unsuspected
diagnoses has decreased over time, but remains sufficiently high that encouraging
ongoing use of the autopsy appears warranted.