TV crime shows like Bones and CSI are quick to explain each death by showing highly detailed scans and video images of victims' insides. Traditional autopsies, if shown at all, are at best in supporting roles to the high-tech equipment, and usually gloss over the sometimes physically grueling tasks of sawing through skin and bone.
But according to two autopsy and body imaging experts at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the notion that "virtopsy" could replace traditional autopsy –made popular by such TV dramas– is simply not ready for scientifically vigorous prime time.
The latest virtual imaging technologies –including full-body computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, X-ray and angiography– are helpful, they say, but cannot yet replace a direct physical inspection of the body's main organs.
"The traditional autopsy, though less and less frequently performed, is still the gold standard for determining why and how people really died," says pathologist Elizabeth Burton, MD, deputy director of the autopsy service at Johns Hopkins.
Burton and Johns Hopkins clinical fellow Mahmud Mossa-Basha, MD, in an editorial set to appear in the Annals of Internal Medicine, offer their own assessment of why the numbers of conventional autopsies have steadily declined over the past decade and why, despite this drop, the virtopsy is unlikely to properly replace it anytime soon.
Determining the cause of death
Burton, who has performed well over a thousand autopsies, says current imaging technologies can help tremendously when used in combination with autopsies. "It's not a question of either traditional autopsy or virtopsy," she says. "It's a question of what methods work best in determining cause of death."
The Johns Hopkins experts base their claims on evidence, some of which will also be published in the same edition of Annals, that some common diagnoses are routinely missed when imaging results are compared to autopsy findings. There is no proof, they say, that virtopsy is a more reliable alternative to conventional autopsy, at least for now.
According to Burton, a visiting associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, hospital autopsy rates in the United States - for patients who die of natural causes in hospitals, whose bodies do not have to be examined by the local medical examiner or coroner- have fallen from a high of about 50% in the 1960s to about 10% today. At The Johns Hopkins Hospital, she says, the rate remains close to a once-required standard for hospital accreditation of 25%, set as an appropriate goal for teaching medical residents and fellows, and auditing clinical practice.
Reasons for decline
Burton says many reasons are behind the drop in conventional autopsy rates. Medical overconfidence in diagnostic imaging results partly explains the decline, but is also to blame for the high number of diagnostic errors.
"If we chose the right test at the right time in the right people, and followed clinical guidelines to the letter, then modern diagnostic tests would produce optimal results. But we don't," says Burton.
Burton says such misinterpretations of images, lab results, and physical signs and symptoms, help explain the roughly 23% of new diagnoses that are detected by autopsy.
She acknowledges that it also is easier for physicians to rely on existing diagnostic techniques to determine the cause of death than to go through the often uncomfortable task of asking grieving family members for permission to perform a conventional autopsy to confirm the cause of death. Making the process more difficult is that many physicians simply don't know what steps to take, including the paperwork and approvals, to get an autopsy performed.
For many families, dissuading factors include the prospect of delaying funeral arrangements, possible disfigurement to a loved one's body as well as the stress in coping with their loss, and the cost of an autopsy, which can run upwards of $3 000, unless the hospital offers to do it at no charge for teaching or its own auditing purposes.
(EurekAlert, January 2012)