Pathologist calls for fewer autopsies

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The Independent Online

The number of coroner post-mortem examinations carried out each year in England and Wales could be reduced by more than 60 per cent, a leading pathologist said yesterday.

Professor Derrick Pounder advised that up to 80,000 dissections a year could be avoided by adopting a system used in Scotland.

In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Professor Pounder said the external examinations procedure would be a more cost-effective method of identifying cause of death.

The paper says the post-mortem examination rate for England and Wales of 110,000 coronial autopsies for every 500,000 deaths is "between double and triple the rate in other jurisdictions". The authors, led by Professor Pounder of the Centre for Forensic and Legal Medicine at the University of Dundee, said: "There is a general lack of evidence about the utility of and justification for such a high level of activity.

"While the autopsy is an important tool in modern death investigation, an almost automatic recourse to it is inappropriate.

"External examinations are not only cost-effective but also a necessary element in any death investigative system which wishes to strike an appropriate balance between intrusion by the state and the rights of the bereaved."

A programme introduced in 1998 to maximise the use of external examinations in Tayside has seen the rate of post-mortems drop to 6 per cent, Professor Pounder said.

The report says this rate, if implemented in England and Wales, would reduce the number of post-mortems from 110,000 to 30,000 per year.