1. Around one in five people who dies in England and Wales will have a post-mortem examination (also known as an autopsy). The examination is usually carried out when the cause of death is unknown, the deceased hadn’t seen a doctor recently or if death was not due to natural causes.
2. Post mortems are carried out with care and respect. We never forget that the deceased is an individual, and somebody’s loved one. The procedure resembles a surgical operation, with precise incisions being made to expose the internal organs. Occasionally a small amount of tissue is removed for further testing. All other tissue is returned to the body.
3. Post mortems involve a team of skilled specialists, including anatomical pathology technologists (APTs) and pathologists, who are specially trained doctors who also examine tissue from the living. They work together to provide a respectful, professional and timely service.
4. The majority of post mortems in the UK are performed at the request of a Coroner. These do not require the consent of the next of kin, but you will be kept informed of the process by the Coroner’s Officer. The Coroner will sometimes hold an inquest into a death, to allow them to consider evidence from several sources.
5. Post-mortem examinations often provide valuable information that can’t be discovered in any other way. Despite many people having scans and other tests during life, post mortems frequently reveal conditions that weren’t suspected or are more extensive than expected. They provide important education for doctors and help bereaved families understand what happened to their loved one.
About Dr Suzy Lishman CBE
Suzy is a consultant pathologist in Peterborough and the past president of the Royal College of Pathologists. She has carried out over one thousand post-mortem examinations, and gives regular public talks about the procedure and its benefits. Suzy is also involved in the introduction of a national medical examiner system, leading on training for this diverse group of senior doctors. You can follow her on Twitter.