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Fam Pract. 2001 Jun;18(3):304-8.

Family members' experiences of autopsy.

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Department of General Practice, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.



The experiences of family members will teach us how to handle an autopsy, the ultimate quality assessment tool.


The aim of this study was to determine surviving family members' experience of autopsy.


Seven GPs were asked to approach surviving family members of autopsied patients to ask for their co-operation with an interview about their experiences. The interview took place at the residences of the individual families, 6 months to a year after the autopsy. A partially structured set of interview questions was used by the interviewer (not a GP) who had experience with the grieving process and with grief counselling.


Twelve family members of autopsied patients were interviewed: six partners, three mothers, one offspring and two sisters. In the case of one 35-year-old man, the autopsy was performed as a judicially required post-mortem. The GP initiated the autopsy request in eight cases. It appears that there is definite room for improvement in how the GP handles the topic of autopsy. The best way to explain it is to compare an autopsy with an operation. Several family members had specific concerns about the appearance of their relative after the autopsy. Several of the family members indicated that they were reassured by the autopsy results. Clarity about the cause of death was important, and reassurance that they had not overlooked important symptomatology helped the family members in their grieving process.


A request for autopsy is one of the most difficult questions which has to be asked at a very difficult time. Three main considerations were important for the relatives: they wanted an answer to the questions "Is there something I overlooked", "How could this have happened" and "Are there hereditary factors which could have consequences for the rest of the family?" The GP is the optimal professional to discuss the autopsy report with the surviving family members. The best approach for the GP includes an open attitude, paying attention to informing the family and supporting their grieving process.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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