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Keywords:

  • medical education;
  • autopsy;
  • necropsy;
  • pathology education;
  • gross anatomy education;
  • hidden curriculum

Attending postmortems enables students to learn anatomy and pathology within a clinical context, provides insights into effects of treatment and introduces the reality that patients die. Rates of clinical autopsies have declined and medical schools have cut obligatory autopsy sessions from their curricula making it difficult to assess medical student perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the educational value of autopsy. Our aim was to investigate these perceptions by designing a brief qualitative study comprising nominal technique and focus group discussions with Cambridge Graduate Course students, all of whom had attended autopsies. Three general themes emerged from the focus group discussions: the value of autopsy as a teaching tool and ways the experience could be improved, the initial impact of the mortuary and the autopsy itself, and the “emerging patient”—an emotional continuum running from cadaver to autopsy subject and living patient. Educational benefits of autopsy-based teaching included greater understanding of anatomy and physiology, greater appreciation of the role of other health care professionals and an enhanced appreciation of psycho-social aspects of medical practice. Students suggested improvements for ameliorating the difficult emotional consequences of attendance. We conclude that autopsy-based teaching represents a low-cost teaching technique which is highly valued by students and has application to many diverse medical specialties and skills. However, careful preparation and organization of sessions is required to maximize potential educational benefits and reduce any negative emotional impact. Anat Sci Educ 7: 87–96. © 2013 American Association of Anatomists.