More Deaths Go Unchecked as Autopsy Rate Falls to 'Miserably Low' LevelsAug 09, 2012
By Jason Breslow
Nearly 7,000 people die each day in the United States, and according to a new report, there remains a critical shortage of experts trained to determine their cause of death.
The study, conducted by a research group working under the auspices of the Department of Justice, noted a “miserably low” national autopsy rate of 8.5 percent, with only about 4.3 percent of disease-caused deaths resulting in an autopsy. Autopsies are crucial because in instances of natural death, they enhance how medical experts understand disease, and can even help family members discover whether a relative died from an undiagnosed hereditary illness. In instances of homicide, they can provide crucial clues to investigators.
But the undersupply of medical examiners is far from the only challenge. As FRONTLINE’s Lowell Bergman reported last winter in the film Post Mortem, the nation’s approach to death investigation is one plagued by widespread dysfunction. There is no federal oversight of death investigators, and accreditation is voluntary. In more than 1,300 counties across the country, elected politicians are in charge of death investigation.