Consented post mortem examinations

Consented, voluntary or medical interest post mortems are all different names given to a post mortem examination carried out with the consent of the family.

The techniques used are identical to a coroner's post mortem but this examination is carried out when a doctor already knows the cause of death. Therefore s/he can issue a Medical Certificate but also feels that it would be helpful to learn more about the condition from which the person died and the effects of any treatment given.

The doctor must ask the next of kin for signed permission to carry out this type of post mortem unless the deceased had already given their signed permission during their life. If consent has been given by the deceased during their lifetime this is binding in law. However in practice doctors will discuss this with the family or executor before going ahead to avoid causing additional distress.

In many hospitals nursing/midwifery and bereavement staff assist doctors with requesting consent for post mortem examinations. The consent forms can seem long and complex but this reflects the importance given to offering families all the information they need to make an informed decision. If you are not offered a copy of the signed form you may ask for one to be given to you.

Most pathologists consider microscopic examination of very small samples of tissue to be an essential part of a post mortem examination. The tissue has to be preserved and treated with chemicals to allow the internal structures of the cell to be seen when placed on microscope slides, which takes some time. Therefore most families also give consent for the samples and microscope slides to be kept for the long term for future reference for research, teaching and audit purposes. Some families do choose to have the samples returned to them but not all cemeteries or crematoria will accept them due to the chemical treatment and the fact that glass is not biodegradable. Any burial or cremation that is possible will have to be paid for by the family.

You may also want to ask if the hospital has any research projects that need human tissue. This may be abnormal tissue or tissue that is normal which can be used to compare with abnormal samples as part of research. It is usual to allow such samples to be kept for as long as necessary for the research and then for the researchers to dispose of the samples when they are no longer needed.

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