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Can computed tomography replace or supplement autopsy?

NCJ Number
Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume: 68 Issue: 2 Dated: 08 February 2023 Pages: 524-535
Sarah L. Lathrop; Philip W. Wiest; Sam W. Andrews; Jamie Elifritz; Janet P. Price ; Gary W. Mlady ; Ross E. Zumwalt; Chandra Y. Gerrard; Valerie L. Poland; Kurt B. Nolte
Date Published
February 2023
12 pages

This study conducted a prospective double-blind comparison of abnormal medicolegal autopsy findings reported by pathologists with postmortem computed tomography (PMCT) results reported by radiologists. 


Since postmortem computed tomography (PMCT) has been integrated into the practice of many forensic pathologists, to evaluate the utility of PMCT in supplementing and/or supplanting medicolegal autopsy, the authors conducted a prospective double-blind comparison of abnormal findings reported by the autopsy pathologist with those reported by a radiologist reviewing the PMCT. They reviewed 890 cases: 167 with blunt force injury (BFI), 63 with pediatric trauma (under 5 years), 203 firearm injuries, and 457 drug poisoning deaths. Autopsy and radiology reports were coded using the Abbreviated Injury Scale and abnormal findings and cause of death (COD) were compared for congruence in consensus conferences with novel pathologists and radiologists. Overall sensitivity for recognizing abnormal findings was 71% for PMCT and 74.6% for autopsy. Sensitivities for PMCT/autopsy were 74%/73.1% for BFI, 61.5%/71.4% for pediatric trauma, 84.9%/83.7% for firearm injuries, and 56.5%/66.4% for drug poisoning deaths. COD assigned by reviewing PMCT/autopsy was correct in 88%/95.8% of BFI cases, 99%/99.5% of firearm fatalities, 82.5%/98.5% of pediatric trauma deaths, and 84%/100% of drug poisoning deaths of individuals younger than 50. Both autopsy and PMCT were imperfect in recognizing injuries. However, both methods identified the most important findings and are sufficient to establish COD in cases of BFI, pediatric trauma, firearm injuries, and drug poisoning in individuals younger than 50. Ideally, all forensic pathologists would have access to a CT scanner and a consulting radiologist. This would allow a flexible approach that meets the diagnostic needs of each case and best serves decedents' families and other stakeholders. (Published abstract provided)