Autopsy is a pathology service that provides a final diagnosis. Pathologists examine the entire body and the internal organs and central nervous system, both with the naked eye and with slides prepared from the organs and viewed under the microscope. The patient's medical history is reviewed comprehensively and the findings are compared and contemplated to answer specific questions, such as cause of death, confirmation of clinical diagnoses, identification of anything that was not previously known, and response of diseases to treatment.
The benefits of the autopsy examination are multiple. The next of kin can gain answers to their questions, or be reassured that their loved one has received proper diagnosis and care. Hereditary conditions may be identified, and that knowledge could benefit the living family members. Physicians can get confirmation of their diagnoses and assess the success, or failure, of therapeutic interventions. Specimens can be obtained that can be used in research to gain new knowledge and develop treatments—this was clearly illustrated in the recent COVID pandemic! Our mission in training new physicians is greatly helped by information obtained from autopsies.
The Autopsy Service is a major section of the Division of Anatomic Pathology, and is staffed by physicians with experience on the nuances of autopsy and decedent pathology. Autopsies are provided at no charge for patients who expire while inpatients at UC San Diego Health, by the UC San Diego Health Pathology Department faculty. This free service covers basic prosection (the procedure of examination) and microscopic examination. Currently, additional testing such as genetic and molecular testing are not covered, and additional charges may be incurred for such testing if requested. This service does not extend to outpatients who pass away in other facilities or at home. The autopsy service does not provide "chain of custody" testing that may be needed for medico-legal purposes. Any outside testing connected to the autopsy must utilize CLIA certified laboratories that are contracted with UC San Diego Health.
Autopsies are arranged through UC San Diego Health Decedent Affairs. A completed written autopsy consent form is required to initiate the process, and this is part of the Death Packet paperwork administered by nursing staff when a patient passes away at UC San Diego Health facilities. Autopsies are optional and not required to obtain a death certificate. (Exceptions to this would be a death that falls under the jurisdiction of the San Diego County Medical Examiner, which follows different rules and procedures.) Legal next-of-kin or designated Power of Attorney can consent for an autopsy. California law does not recognize "common law" marriages, so unmarried couples would require a Power of Attorney document to provide consent. A UC San Diego Health physician's signature is also required, as with any medical test. A signed consent must be received by the Pathology Department within 7 days of death to obtain an autopsy. Next of kin can consent to a full autopsy, or restrict the autopsy to certain procedures. The autopsy service will respect those written restrictions. Furthermore, the autopsy service will make an effort to accommodate religious requirements if we are informed about them. If there are time limitations for funerals, please notify UC San Diego Health Decedent Affairs as soon as possible. The autopsy service faculty and staff are respectful and maintain confidentiality of any findings. The autopsy procedure does not disfigure the body or prevent an open casket funeral. Evaluation methods that are compatible with mortuary procedures are utilized.
A preliminary autopsy report, which details macroscopically visible findings, is available within 2 working days (not counting weekends and federal holidays) of the autopsy. The final autopsy report is available within 60 working days (not counting weekends and federal holidays). Autopsy reports are available through UC San Diego Health Medical Records, who will require identification prior to releasing a report (due to privacy laws). Due to medical center policies, we cannot send out reports directly from the Pathology Department. We release the reports to the requesting physician through the patient's electronic medical record.
We are here to help. Autopsy ordering recommendations can be found here: UC San Diego Health | Tests (testmenu.com)
Meet the Faculty:
Ann M. Ponsford Tipps, M.D., Director of Autopsy Service
Omonigho Aisagbonhi, M.D., Ph.D.
Oluwole Fadare, M.D.
Farnaz Hasteh, M.D.
Jingjing Hu, MD Ph.D.
Grace Y. Lin, MD Ph.D.
Andres A. Roma, M.D.
Hana M. Russo, M.D., Ph.D.
Haiyan Zhang, M.D., Ph.D.