The Autopsy Service plays important roles in providing diagnostic information, quality control for clinical practice, and supporting educational and research services. Autopsies are valuable in determining the cause and mechanism of death, and in revealing undiagnosed conditions. Despite the advances in diagnostic imaging technology, studies have shown that up to 10% of autopsies yield unexpected findings. The feedback to clinicians from autopsies is important in improving the quality of care and in educating practicing and resident physicians. Just as important are the majority of autopsies that confirm the clinical diagnosis; both types of results inform the clinical judgment of clinicians who treat subsequent patients.
An autopsy can benefit a family in several ways. It often shows that disease was so advanced that that treatment was ultimately futile. It can diagnose inherited diseases that could affect other family members. In addition, autopsies support research into new methods of diagnosis and treatment and epidemiologic studies by providing accurate statistical information about causes of death and pathologic processes. The Autopsy Service plays a major role in teaching pathology residents, clinical residents, medical students, and students of other health care disciplines.
Unexpected and unattended deaths, deaths resulting from violence, and those occurring under suspicious circumstances are investigated by a medical examiner (forensic pathologist). In these instances, the autopsy, in conjunction with the history and circumstances, is conducted to determine the legal cause of death and retain evidence, in support of possible criminal prosecution. Results of autopsies are used by life insurance companies to adjudicate claims, and by experts in civil lawsuits to support opinions pertaining to cause of death and life expectancy.
The autopsy program at West Virginia includes forensic pathology cases. Our autopsy service handles over 400 cases annually, including over 350 forensic cases from the northern counties of West Virginia, performed for the Chief Medical Examiner of West Virginia. We perform the majority of autopsies on deceased West Virginian coal miners enrolled in the National Coal Workers’ Autopsy Study. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, located on the campus of the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center in Morgantown, maintains this resource. The Pathology department collaborates with NIOSH in studies of occupational lung disease.