Box 9-1

What Is an Autopsy?

An autopsy is the systematic external and internal examination of a body to establish the presence or absence of disease by gross and microscopic examination of body tissues. The pathologist makes a surgical incision from shoulder to shoulder and from the midpoint of the shoulder to shoulder incision to the pubic bone. The skin is reflected, and each organ in the chest, including the neck structures, abdomen, and pelvis is removed and carefully examined. An incision is also made from the mastoid bone on the right to the mastoid bone on the left, and the scalp is pulled forward and the bony cap removed to reveal the brain. The brain is removed and examined. The pathologist takes a small sample or biopsy of all tissues and archives them in formalin to maintain them for future reference. In medicolegal autopsies, all tissues other than the biopsies are replaced in the body, except for perhaps the brain or heart, which may be retained and examined by consultants for diagnoses causing or contributing to death. For hospital autopsies, depending on the list of permissions given by the person qualified to give permission, tissues and organs may be retained for study, research, or other investigations. The pathologist submits small 2 × 2 cm sections of tissue to the histology laboratory, where thin slices a few microns thick are subjected to chemical treatment to preserve them. The tissue blocks are shaved, so that a thin layer can be mounted on a glass slide and stained with dyes to differentiate cells. The pathologist can recognize diseases in the stained tissue. Medicolegal autopsies are conducted to determine the cause of death; assist with the determination of the manner of death as natural, suicide, homicide, or accident; collect medical evidence that may be useful for public health or the courts; and develop information that may be useful for reconstructing how the person received a fatal injury.

systems.32 Lack of direct access to laboratories and insufficient funding for testing impair the expertise of coroners. Some coroners are amenable to protocols that would ensure the use of forensic pathologists for autopsy. However, even with these improvements, the assessment of the dead for disease, injury, medical history, and laboratory studies is a medical decision, as opposed to a decision that would be made by a lay person with investigative and some medical training. The disconnect between the determination a medical professional may make regarding the cause and manner of death and what the coroner may independently decide and certify as the cause and manner of death remains the weakest link in the process.

In contrast, medical examiners are almost always physicians, are appointed, and are often pathologists or forensic pathologists. They bring


Murphy, op. cit.

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