Frequently Asked Questions: Autopsy
What is an autopsy?
Autopsies are the ultimate quality assurance studies available to the practice of medicine. Their purpose is to improve the quality of care that we can provide. Numerous studies over the past 30 years have shown that unexpected findings occur in about 20 percent of cases and that clinicians cannot accurately predict which cases hold the unexpected results.
Hospital Autopsy: Often referred to as post-mortem examinations or necropsy, hospital autopsies, in contrast to forensic autopsies, include external and internal examinations that are performed after death, using surgical techniques. Their goal is to answer specific questions and identify diseases or problems related to a patient's death.
The examination is performed by a pathologist who is a medical physician that is specifically trained to recognize disease processes. The training also includes integrating the autopsy findings with the clinical history to clarify questions asked by attending physicians. Under certain circumstances, an autopsy may be limited to specific sites or for a specific purpose.
- Forensic Autopsy: Forensic autopsies differ from hospital autopsies in their objectives and relationships. In addition to determining a person's cause of death, if possible, forensic pathologists must establish the manner of death (e.g., natural, accident, suicide or homicide) and identity of the decedent (if not known), as well as the decedent's time of death and/or injury. Evidence collected from the body may prove or disprove a person's guilt or innocence. The autopsy also involves evaluating the scene, clothing and toxicology.
How long does an autopsy typically take from start to finish?
Autopsies are performed with 24 hours of death and are scheduled as soon as completed Autopsy Permission and Request Forms, in addition to patients' clinical records, are available and reviewed in the University of Florida Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine. The initial examination takes between two and four hours and depends on the complexity of the disease processes, any limitations to the autopsy, and the goal of the autopsy. Additional studies may involve pathologists examining slides of any diseased tissue and evaluating any microbiological and toxicological tests.
When are final autopsy reports ready for review?
Preliminary autopsy reports are usually available on the next working day. Final autopsy reports are ready between 30 and 45 days later. Complex cases may take up to 90 days before a final report is complete.
Who may have a copy of an autopsy report?
As soon as the completed report is electronically signed, it is automatically transmitted to the computerized UF Health Shand Hospital's Lifetime Care Record where it can be viewed by appropriate medical professionals. A written copy is sent to the medical record and is maintained by the Health Records and Medical Information Division of the hospital.
Decedents' legal next of kin may obtain printed copies by providing a written request to:
UF Heath Shands Hospital
1600 SW Archer Road
Gainesville, FL 32608
Call (352) 265-0131 for more information.
How much does an autopsy cost?
Autopsies and related studies are provided at no cost to the family if a decedent is a UFHealth patient. The cost of a private autopsy for non-UF Health patients is handled on a case-by-case basis. Contact the UF Health Autopsy Services Director if you have specific questions.
What about religious and cultural concerns of the family?
Cultural and religious practices surrounding death vary greatly throughout the world. Autopsies and related studies can be tailored to incorporate most religious and cultural practices. Questions regarding specific religious and cultural death practices can be discussed with the UF Health Autopsy Services Director or the pathologist-on-call at any time.
Will scheduling an autopsy interfere with a decedent's funeral or memorial services?
In general, the timing of an autopsy will not interfere with scheduled funeral or memorial services. Any questions should be discussed with the on-call pathology resident or director of autopsy services.
What are the rules for transporting decedents within Florida and out of state?
The transport of decedent adults is generally performed by licensed funeral directors or removal services contracted by the families responsible for burial (see Florida statute 382.006). On rare occasions, a family may be allowed to transport their infant or fetus to a licensed funeral home after being issued an appropriate death certificate or burial transit permit, as well as appropriate transport accommodations (FS 497.386). Contact the director of the autopsy service with any questions.
What about cremation?
The decision to bury or cremate the body of a decedent is a private decision made the by his or her family and does not affect the autopsy or ancillary studies. No cremation, however, may be accomplished until 48 hours after death and until the medical examiner reviews the death certificate.
Will an autopsy interfere with viewing of the body?
An autopsy will not interfere with the viewing of the decedent's body. The incisions are made in such as way as to be easily concealed by standard clothing and body presentation.
What about autopsy follow-up for the decedent's family and the assigned attending clinicians?
Copies of the final autopsy report are mailed to the attending physicians who are responsible for contacting the decedent's family for follow-up. If the attending physician has questions about the results, they should contact the UF Health Autopsy Services Director on the case.