An autopsy - or postmortem examination - is a medical procedure performed on a decedent by a pathologist (a pathologist is a licensed physician trained to identify and understand the anatomic and biochemical changes brought about by disease). The procedure involves evaluating the body, organs, and tissues with the naked eye, examining biopsies of the tissues and organs under a microscope, and incorporating other tests, such as radiographs or bacterial cultures, when needed.
Why request an autopsy?
Information obtained from an autopsy can be of great benefit to the decedent’s family and to the clinicians who cared for the decedent, as a postmortem examination remains the only way to know for sure what diseases and co-existing conditions were present in someone who has died. Autopsy also plays an integral role in educating and training current and future physicians in almost every medical specialty, including pathology. Furthermore, the presentation of autopsy findings at various multidisciplinary conferences throughout Northwell Health enhances delivery of optimal patient care.
Who can request an autopsy?
An autopsy can be requested by a clinician or a family member. However, a valid consent form must be completed by the legal next- of- kin in order for the procedure to be performed. The next- of- kin can place restrictions on the autopsy (e.g., chest or abdomen only), but such restrictions may limit the potential usefulness of the examination.
A report of preliminary autopsy findings is usually available within five working days. The final autopsy report can take up to 60 or more working days to complete, as it requires synthesizing the clinical record, autopsy findings, and any additional testing. An autopsy report should be reviewed with the decedent’s family by a clinician who cared for the decedent. Upon request, a pathologist will gladly join the clinician to discuss the autopsy findings. A decedent’s autopsy report can be obtained by the next-of-kin by calling the pathology department in the hospital where death occurred.
The Northwell Health Regional Autopsy Service is under the leadership of Alex K Williamson, MD (Chief of Service). All autopsies from hospitals in or affiliated with Northwell Health are performed at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Dr. Williamson practices – and is board-certified in – anatomic, clinical, pediatric, and forensic pathology; he has performed over 800 forensic and hospital autopsies; he teaches medical students, residents, and fellows; and he publishes and lectures on various topics related to autopsy and forensic pathology. Twelve attending pathologists, whose practice and research interests span the spectrum of pathology specialties, comprise the Autopsy Service. Approximately 300 postmortem examinations are performed each year on decedents of all ages, and each autopsy is conducted by a resident pathologist under the close supervision of an attending pathologist.
Facts about the Postmortem Examination
- The surgical incisions used to examine a body do not interfere with viewing the body at a funeral.
- In most cases, the cost of performing an autopsy is covered by Northwell Health, and families are not charged for the procedure.
- Autopsies are performed in the order in which their requests are received, and almost all autopsies are performed within 48 hours of receiving an examination request.
- The Department of Pathology works closely with funeral home staff to facilitate release of bodies for cremation or funeral preparation following performance of an autopsy.