OBJECTIVE: To assess the current value of necropsy in paediatric cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery and determine its potential impact on clinical practice. DESIGN AND SETTING: Descriptive study of all paediatric cardiac deaths occurring over four years in a tertiary referral centre. Data were obtained from reviewing the hospital files, available necropsy records and specimens, and audit reports. PATIENTS: Paediatric patients with congenital or acquired heart disease, who died of a cardiac cause between January 1992 and July 1995. Inclusion criteria were that the diagnosis of heart disease was made before death, and that patients were managed thereafter medically and/or surgically at the referral centre. The value of necropsy was assessed according to its contribution in establishing the cause of death (confirmed, clarified, precise cause of death uncertain) and the anatomy (simple confirmation or additional information provided). For cases not submitted to necropsy the clinical information relating to the cause of death was assessed and the case assigned as cause of death firm, uncertain, or unknown. RESULTS: One hundred and six deaths were identified (61 males, age at death: one day to 20 years). Seventy occurred early (a month or less) after surgery and were graded as postoperative deaths. The rest were considered to be either medical or late surgical deaths. Necropsy was performed in 59 (55.6%). The precise cause of death was confirmed in 33 (55.9%), clarified in 22 (37.3%), and remained uncertain in four (7.8%). Additional information regarding the anatomy was found in eight (13.6%) cases. In five cases (8.5%) the necropsy detected findings which, if known before death, would probably have improved outcome. For the patients dying without a necropsy, the cause of death remained uncertain in 10 (21.3%) and unknown in seven (14.9%). In 36% of cases, therefore, a firm cause of death that might have been provided by a necropsy was missing. CONCLUSION: In paediatric cardiology necropsy continues to provide clinically relevant information at a high level. It remains vital for ensuring quality of medical care, in instigating improvements in future management, and increasing understanding of congenital heart disease. The procedure should therefore be sought actively in all cases.
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