Is Routine Histopathologic Examination Beneficial in All Medicolegal Autopsies?

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Postmortem examinations are performed for a number of reasons. Medical autopsies are performed at the request of and with the consent of the next of kin of a decedent and are often requested to determine the extent of a disease process or to evaluate therapy. In contrast, medicolegal autopsies are performed by a forensic pathologist primarily to determine cause and manner of death but also to document trauma, diagnose potentially infectious diseases and report them to the appropriate agencies, provide information to families about potentially inheritable diseases, provide information to family members and investigative agencies, and testify in court. As medicolegal and hospital autopsies differ in their purpose, so do they differ in procedure. Medicolegal autopsies often include histologic analysis, but not always, as with medical autopsies. We designed a prospective study to address the question of whether or not routine histologic examination is useful in medicolegal cases, defining a routine case as one where histology would not normally be performed and where the cause and manner of death were readily apparent during the gross autopsy. We reviewed brain, heart, liver, kidney, and lung sections on 189 routine forensic cases and compared the results to the gross anatomic findings. Of the 189 cases, in only 1 case did microscopic examination affect the cause of death and in no case did microscopic examination affect the manner of death. Thus, we feel that routine microscopic examination (performing histologic examination in all cases regardless of cause and manner of death) in forensic autopsy is unnecessary. Microscopic examination should be used, as needed, in certain circumstances but is not necessary as a matter of routine.

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