An autopsy (also known as a post-mortem examination or necropsy) is a medical investigation of a corpse.
The term "autopsy" derives from the Greek for "seeing with your own eyes". "Necropsy" is from the Greek for "seeing a dead body".
During the post-mortem examination the body is opened and the main organs removed, weighed, inspected, and dissected. Pathology tests (usually histology) and other medical tests may also be performed. It is sometimes necessary to retain a whole organ for examination - usually the brain or the heart.
An important aim of the autopsy is to reconstitute the body such that it can be viewed, if desired, by relatives of the deceased following the procedure. The main incision to examine the internal organs is a single opening from the lower neck, straight down to just above the pubic bone. To remove and examine the brain it is necessary to make an incision over the back of the head, from behind one ear - over the crown - to behind the other ear. It is unusual to need to examine the face, arms, hands or legs internally. When the organs are replaced, the incisions are sewn up, and the deceased in repose in a shroud it is common for relatives of the deceased to not be able to tell the procedure has been done when the deceased is viewed in a funeral parlor.
The principal aim of an autopsy is to discover the cause of death, to determine the state of health of the person before they died, and whether any medical diagnosis and treatment before death was appropriate. Studies have shown that even in the modern era of use of high technology scanning and medical tests, the medical cause of death is wrong in about one third of instances unless an autopsy is performed. In about one in ten cases the cause of death is so wrong that had it been known in life the medical management of the patient would have been significantly different.
In the United States, and most Western countries, the number of autopsies performed in hospitals has been decreasing every year since 1955. Critics, including pathologist and former JAMA editor George Lundberg have charged that the reduction in autopsies is negatively affecting the care delivered in hospitals, because when mistakes result in death, they are often not investigated-- and learned from.
Where a person has given permission in advance of their death, autopsies may also be carried out for the purposes of teaching or medical research.
An autopsy is frequently performed in cases of sudden death, where a doctor is not able to write a death certificate, or when death is believed to be due to an unnatural cause. These examinations are performed under a legal authority (Medical Examiner or Coroner) and do not require the consent of relatives of the deceased. The most extreme example is the examination of murder victims, especially when medical examiners are looking for signs of death or the murder method, such as bullet wounds and exit points, signs of strangulation, or traces of poison.
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