Critical Diagnoses in Forensic Pathology: Ethics of Disclosure
Melissa M. Blessing DO, R. Ross Reichard MD
ABSTRACT: A complex set of systems exists in the United States to manage and regulate the practice of medicine, and forensic pathologists (FPs) are bound by the associated ethical guidelines and associated statutory obligations. Individual FPs, for example, are required to have and maintain a state medical license that requires continuing medical education and provides oversight of many aspects of the practice of medicine. The laboratories in which forensic pathology is practiced, however, generally do not have to be accredited. In contrast, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) is the recognized accrediting body that "regulates" the majority of anatomic pathology and laboratory medicine, including hospital (consented) autopsies. Unlike hosptial-based pathology practices, few incentives are present that encourage or require forensic pathology practices to pursue accreditation. Since the preponderance of forensic pathology practices do not fall under the purview of CAP, this relatively small subset of pathologists are left to determine their own set of professional and ethical standards. The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) laboratory accreditation and published autopsy guidelines provides a foundation for development of a quality management program, but does not specifically address disclosure of test results. Defining "critical diagnoses" in forensic pathology is challenging, and communicating these important findings to the proper individual(s) or organizations may not fall under statutory or accrediting requirements, and thus may become an ethical issue for the medical examiner/coroner.