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Autopsies at The University of Vermont Medical Center

When a hospital autopsy is requested, it is because either the health care team or the family feels  it is important. Autopsy is a sensitive issue and we encourage open discussion with the physician involved in the decedent’s care or an autopsy pathologist to answer any questions not addressed here. Pathologists of the UVM Medical Center Autopsy Service can be reached at (802) 847-3570 or through the Anatomic Pathology office at (802) 847-3566. For urgent matters, the pathology resident on call can be reached evenings and weekends at 802-847-9585. For non-urgent questions, please leave a message with your contact information at 802-847-3570 and your call will be returned the following week day morning.

About Autopsies

The word "autopsy" comes from the Greek, and means "seeing for oneself." Often what the autopsy reveals has not been seen by medical tests or surgery.

The procedure has been known throughout history as a way of letting the family understand what has happened to the person they love. Giving permission for an autopsy is a means of increasing medical knowledge which in turn benefits you, your family, and also the community at large.

We hope the following information is helpful in answering some of the questions you may have about the hospital autopsy.

Frequently Asked Questions About Autopsies

Who gives permission for a hospital autopsy?

A hospital autopsy may be requested either by the patient's physician or by the family. However, for a hospital autopsy to be performed, a written or telephoned consent must be obtained from the decedent’s next-of-kin. The next of kin is defined as the decedent’s spouse, followed by adult child if there is no living spouse. Siblings are next of kin if there is no spouse or adult children.

When signing the consent form, the signer may stipulate any restriction or limitations to the autopsy examination. Religious beliefs will be respected. The autopsy will be performed by one or more physicians called pathologists who are specially trained to recognize the anatomic changes brought about by disease.

What is the purpose of a hospital autopsy?

The primary purpose of a hospital autopsy is to put to rest questions the family or physician may still have regarding the nature of the illness, cause of death, and/or co-existing conditions. In addition, what is learned through an autopsy on one patient may significantly contribute to save the lives of others. For these reasons, there is no charge for an autopsy for Vermont residents with the exception of transportation costs to our facility at UVM Medical Center.

What happens during a hospital autopsy?

Before beginning the procedure, the pathologist carefully reviews the patient's medical record and discusses the clinical findings and history with those physicians who cared for the patient.

The autopsy itself begins with a recording of any external evidence of the patient's illness. Next the pathologist, using a standard surgical procedure, examines the internal organs, taking tissue samples for microscopic examination. A variety of special procedures may be used, such as performing X-rays, culturing micro-organisms, digital photography, chromosome analysis, and postmortem chemistries.

The autopsy procedure usually takes 3-5 hours. Many more hours are spent examining the microscopic slides and any other test results, consulting with subspecialists and writing the final report.

Will the body be treated with respect?

The autopsy room is regarded as a special place for gathering scientific knowledge. An air of dignity and respect for the patient and for the survivors' wishes is maintained at all times.

Does an autopsy affect funeral arrangements?

The autopsy procedure is done in a manner that will not interfere in any way with the funeral service or viewing of the deceased.

Arrangements with the funeral home are made by the family at the time of death. The autopsy service and funeral home coordinate their services to preclude delay. Upon completion of the autopsy, the funeral home of the family's choice is contacted immediately by the hospital. The wishes of the family and their funeral home are always foremost.

How do I find out the results of the autopsy?

A preliminary report is filed on the next working day and is then sent to the decedents physicians. The completed final report takes at most 60 working days as it is an extensive and comprehensive examination which can require specialized analysis of microscopic material and consultation with subspecialists. When the autopsy has been completed, a letter is sent to the next of kin letting them know that the case has been finalized. This letter contains phone numbers of both the physician and pathologist involved in the care of the decedent as well as information in how to obtain copies of the report.

Who benefits from an autopsy?

The family, the physicians, and the community may all benefit from the performance of an autopsy.

The Family

Finding certain diseases - for example, cancer - leads to early detection of curable cases in other family members. Finding no evidence of certain diseases - colon polyps or cancer, for example - relieves worries that family members have about their own health. Discovering an infectious disease - for example, tuberculosis - leads to preventative measures among family members and other close contacts.

The Physicians and Community

The autopsy increases scientific knowledge of disease by helping doctors find causes for illness, letting doctors see the effects of surgery and treatment, and finding important causes of disease such as cancer. The autopsy can improve the human environment and assure public safety - for example, by finding evidence of infections, toxic substances and environmental pollutants.

Can the family still make an anatomic donation?

Organ and tissue donations are still possible, and are usually done before an autopsy. For many, the benefits of these donations will ease a profound sense of loss by knowing that the death of a loved one has helped someone else to live. If the patient has arranged to donate his/her body to a medical school for anatomic study, there would not be an autopsy or report.

What is a medical examiner case?

When death is due to a non-natural cause such as  homicide, suicide, or accident, the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Medical Examiner/ State of Vermont. Some, but not all medical examiner cases require an autopsy to help establish the cause and manner of death. In those instances in which an autopsy is not required, a hospital autopsy may be requested either by the physician or the family after the Medical Examiner’s Office has waived jurisdiction.