We Need More Autopsies, to Help Save the Living – Facts So Romantic

When Italian authorities confirmed that James Gandolfini had just died in Rome of an apparent heart attack in 2013, many reports in American media fronted the fact that Gandolfini’s body would be autopsied, “as required by Italian law.” They emphasized this news for understandable reasons—an autopsy on someone who died in medical care seemed unusual. In the United States, we usually don’t autopsy people unless the cause of death is mysterious or foul play is suspected. In fact, we autopsy less than 5 percent of all deaths.

So why would you want to do an autopsy on someone when the cause of death seemed pretty clear? Heart attacks are obvious, right?

You would do so because while death and taxes may be the only sure things in life, the actual why and how of any given death is often uncertain, even when doctors think otherwise. The sad fact is that despite medicine’s many modern wonders—the tests, the drugs, the scans that show fibers the size of a hair—the cause of death that American doctors provide for death certificates are dead wrong about a fifth of the time.

How do we know they’re wrong? Because of so-called autopsy studies. In…

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