EDITORIAL: Autopsy reports must be open, despite our mistake
• Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong at The Seattle Times reported high rates of MRSA infections. After the report, a law passed requiring hospitals to screen high-risk patients for the disease.
• Detroit Free Press reporter Robin Erb uncovered suspicious deaths of patients in several nursing homes.
• Several public figures have died of surgery complications. Access to their death records could put to rest the suspicion that their deaths cold have been avoided.
The Daily reported Tuesday that OU student Casey Cooke was drunk at the time of her June 3 death, according to the autopsy report. The story included a link to the full autopsy report, which was also included in a tweet about the breaking news.
When a public outcry arose against the inclusion of the document, the editorial board had a long discussion about the ethical and moral concerns involved in the decision.
Autopsy reports are considered public records by many states, including Oklahoma, which gives the public access to them. This access is essential because of the important and often unexpected role these reports can play in investigations.
However, in this case, after listening to the concerns of the community, we have determined that the graphic details in Cooke’s autopsy report do not serve that purpose or any other practical purpose.
They only served to cause pain and discomfort to the OU community, which was not our intention.
We decided to remove the autopsy report from our website and, in the future, we will consider the value of such reports against the damage they might cause to ensure such a misjudgment does not happen again.
But do not let our mistake convince you that there is no value in public access to autopsy reports. Important investigations would not be possible without access to them.
Autopsy reports have helped journalists uncover medical errors and expose doctors with histories of deadly mistakes or bad practices. If these errors had remained hidden, families would have been denied compensation, and unethical doctors would be allowed to put unknowing patients at risk.
These reports have also been used by journalists to track healthcare epidemics, such as the staph infection epidemic that has gained increasing exposure in recent years. Such reporting enables patients to protect themselves from these diseases and keep an eye out for common symptoms so they can get immediate treatment.
Some such epidemics are discovered by medical organizations, but others are not noticed until someone finds the connecting thread in the records.
They are useful outside the medical realm as well. Many investigations have utilized autopsy reports to point to ineffective criminal justice policies or mistakes made by law enforcement. Journalists have discovered suspicious deaths in jail and during arrests, revealed failed law enforcement responses and overturned the supposed justification for a shooting at the hands of police.
If these situations had gone undiscovered, law enforcement agencies might never have been forced to change ineffective, harmful policies or punish wrongdoings within their ranks.
Autopsy reports have even been used to protect some of the population’s most vulnerable members by uncovering abuses by nursing home staff that led to the deaths of elderly patients.
Nearly half the states in the U.S. severely restrict the public’s access to these valuable documents, and recent cases in South Carolina and Pennsylvania have further questioned the legality of such access.
Nearly 40 percent of autopsies yield at least one unexpected finding that contributed to a patient’s death, according to a 2008 analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology.
This information may not always be relevant, but on many occasions it can lead to important knowledge — and even, eventually, needed change.
Even details that may not seem initially relevant may end up being relevant to the case in the future as law enforcement and journalists follow up. Some details may end up being important for other cases that have nothing to do with the original crime but may reveal broader abuses or systematic problems (as in the examples above).
So, while all autopsies reveal graphic and disturbing details about the individual, sometimes those details make the difference between a buried secret and a public cry for justice. For all those reports that could eventually lead to one or more saved lives, autopsy findings must remain accessible to the public.