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Post-mortem examinations

The purpose of a post-mortem examination is to better understand the factors that may have contributed to the person’s death. This information may be important for the next of kin (eg if the person died from an infectious or genetic disease), or for the community as a whole (in identifying or tracing outbreaks of disease; in teaching doctors and nurses; and in checking the quality of the hospital’s diagnostic and treatment procedures). The report will be made available to a medical practitioner nominated by the relatives of the deceased.

Hospitals sometimes request permission from the next of kin to perform post-mortems, for example for research or teaching purposes. This is called a hospital (or non-coronial) autopsy. Hospital autopsies require family consent in Australia. Although they are usually requested by the hospital, an autopsy can also be requested by the deceased’s family if they have good reasons for the request. An autopsy request can also be limited to a particular area of the body.

The coroner requires a post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death in certain circumstances - see the section on Coroner's cases for more information.

What is involved?

A post-mortem examination or autopsy usually involves an internal and external examination of the body. Organs, tissues and body fluids are examined and small samples may be taken if necessary. An autopsy is performed by a doctor who has special training and experience in this field (called a forensic pathologist). The pathologist writes a full report on their findings.