Health care extends beyond the provision of medical services to the living. It also encompasses, but is not limited to, what can be done with your body after death; who has access to your confidential medical Information and what rights you have to call health care professionals to account for their conduct. This chapter explains some of your rights as a patient, regardless of the type of health care service you’re using, and the obligations of the professional providing that service.

Post-mortem examinations

Purpose of autopsies

The purpose of a post-mortem examination (i.e. an autopsy) is to obtain a complete picture of the former health status of the deceased person and a fuller understanding of all the factors that may have contributed to the person’s death.

This information may be important:

  • for the next of kin (e.g. if the person died from an infectious or genetic disease);
  • for the community as a whole (in identifying or tracing outbreaks of disease;
  • in teaching doctors and nurses; and
  • in checking the quality of the hospital’s diagnostic and treatment procedures).

Consent and objection to autopsies

Consent is required prior to carrying out a post-mortem examination unless it is ordered by the coroner.

As is the case with organ and tissue donation, the law operates on the principle that the views a person expressed while alive about the use of their body after death will be respected once they are dead. Therefore, the law on consent for post-mortem examinations and for donation of bodies to medical schools is, in most respects, the same as for organ and tissue donation after death (see ‘Organ and tissue donation after death’ in ‘Blood transfusions and organ transplants‘).

Autopsies: Infectious diseases

Under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic) (s 156), the Chief Health Officer has the power to require a doctor who has appropriate qualifications or experience to carry out an autopsy.

An autopsy may be ordered if the Chief Health Officer believes that an infectious disease caused, may have caused, or contributed to the person’s death; an autopsy is necessary to determine whether there is a serious risk to public health; and the coroner does not have jurisdiction over the body.

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Health, wills and other legal issues affecting older people