This study evaluates the impact of the autopsy on a general surgical training program from 1984 through 1988. We have retrospectively examined the charts of all patients who died during this period. Included in this analysis are the records of patients from the general, cardiac, pediatric, and transplant surgery departments during this 5-year period. In all, 628 patients were evaluated. The overall autopsy rate was 73%. The clinical impressions prior to death are correlated with the anatomic diagnoses found during autopsy. Significant diagnostic discrepancies (errors unrecognized and directly related to or associated with the cause of death) were determined. On a yearly basis, diagnostic discrepancies range between 23% to 39%. Gross and histologic examination of surgical patients reveals significant information concerning the cause of death. These data confirm the educational benefit of autopsy despite escalating utilization of sophisticated, noninvasive diagnostic modalities. It is our opinion that the mortality conference, with formal autopsy presentation, is a vital forum for the discussion of patient care and quality assurance issues. Autopsy remains the most specific indicator of errors in diagnosis, management, judgment, and technique in surgical practice today.
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