Greater Acceptance of Autopsies Needed
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 22:02
Death is a difficult topic to explore. The grieving process is painful, often filled with obstacles and heartbreak as family members and friends try to answer the multifaceted question: why?
Autopsies are helpful tools in allowing families and friends to move on. Autopsies also make a serious contribution to our understanding of causes of death in the United States.
Unfortunately, because of the combination of rising costs for doctors and refusals from medical insurance providers, the rate of autopsies in America is decreasing exponentially. We must ask what can be done to stop this trend.
Until 1970, the Joint Commission mandated at least 20 percent of deaths in hospitals be investigated with an autopsy. The data that emerged from this mandate allowed hospitals to examine their own care systems, investigate causes of death and discover which causes of death were most prevalent in American society. However, the mandate was removed due to a nonspecific attempt to reach target rates.
Since the removal of the mandate, the autopsy rate has dropped exponentially; a mere five percent of deaths in hospitals are now investigated with autopsies. Even these are of questionable value to medical understanding, as most result from criminal investigations.
Many blame insurance companies for this trend, while others blame hospitals. Because the cost of an autopsy is highly variable, ranging from $100 to $7,500, families are often unable to pay for an autopsy. Hospitals usually cannot fund an autopsy program, while insurance companies refuse to pay for dead patients. Many say the money could be better spent on the living, rather than "wasting time" on those who are already dead.
However, some professionals think that funding autopsies would be better for patients in the long run. Many feel that finding accurate statistics for causes of death would lead to better medical research spending.
Others are more convinced of the psychological help for grieving family members. "Not knowing, to me, has always been worse than knowing the truth, and we know the truth as a result of autopsy. Even though that's still painful, there's a sense of peace," said Jeffrey Schaler, the husband of recently-deceased Renee Royak-Schaler, a professor and cancer researcher.
The refusal of many medical professionals and insurance companies to pursue autopsies says quite a bit about the state of death in the minds of Americans. Though an increase in autopsies would result in better medical research and closure for many, there is an avoidance of death-related expenditures in most medical circles.
One might wonder if Americans would be better off demanding more autopsies from their medical professionals and insurance companies. If mandates were once again instated to perform autopsies, would more Americans be at peace? Certainly, research would improve the lives of many Americans. Would knowing the cause of our loved ones' deaths help us grieve more healthily?
More research needs to be done to answer this question fully, but steps can be taken to find out. Medical professionals can do more to ask if a family would like to have an autopsy performed. Families needing answers can find them and finally heal their grief.
Certainly, requesting an autopsy is a difficult decision to make.
Americans should be better educated about the benefits of holding an autopsy and insurance companies can be educated about the long-term benefits of autopsy allowance.
This is not a question of forcing Americans to request autopsies for their loved ones. However, if more people may benefit from an increase in autopsies, then more Americans should be made aware of the option.