BACKGROUND: There is concern about the decrease in the number of requests for necropsies, so a study was undertaken to assess current clinical practice. METHOD: A prospective study was made of all deaths occurring under the care of five chest physicians and three thoracic surgeons at East Birmingham Hospital from 1 April to 30 June 1989. RESULTS: A necropsy was sought in 34 of 58 deaths (59%) and was performed in 22 instances (38%). Major unexpected findings which would have affected clinical management were noted in three patients (14%). The mean delay in reporting results of histological examinations was 146 days (range 41-260 days). As the result of an increase in pathology technical staff levels and alteration in the practice of processing histological data, there was a substantial improvement during the corresponding period in 1990 (mean reduction 58 days, 95% confidence limits 39-77 days). Apart from patients with histologically proved carcinoma, there was no consistent pattern for requests for necropsies. CONCLUSIONS: Necropsies continue to reveal diagnoses which were not suspected while the patient was alive. Although the number of requests made by clinical staff for necropsies is reasonable, the reasons for the requests are not consistent. Guidelines are suggested to improve the number of successful requests and to maximise the information obtained from them.
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