Despite technologic and medical advancements, autopsies are essential to uncover clinically unsuspected diagnoses, to advance our understanding of disease processes, and to help reduce medical errors.


To investigate the percentage of malignancy clinically diagnosed and undiagnosed in a series of hospital autopsies. Secondarily, to explore the therapeutic complications directly contributing to death in cancer patients.


A 10-year retrospective study (2008–2018). All nonforensic autopsies performed at the University of Vermont Medical Center during this period were reviewed by 2 pathologists, and data, including antemortem diagnoses of malignancy, and autopsy findings, including therapeutic complications, were collected.


A total of 246 cases documented a diagnosis of malignancy. In 34.5% (85 of 246) of cases a tissue diagnosis of malignancy was first documented following postmortem examination. In 41.2% (35 of 85) of cases there was clinical antemortem suspicion of malignancy, whereas in 58.8% (50 of 85) clinically unsuspected malignancy was first diagnosed after postmortem examination. In 16.0% (8 of 50) of cases the undiagnosed malignancy was the primary cause of death. The overall rate of therapeutic complication related to the treatment of oncologic disease in patients that resulted in death was 21.7% (35 of 161).


Our study shows the percentage of clinically unsuspected malignancies revealed by postmortem examination to be 5% (50 of 1003) of all autopsy cases. In 16% (8 of 50) of cases, the cause of death was due to the clinically undiagnosed malignancy, and hence not an incidental finding. Despite advances in medical therapy in the management of oncologic disease, in up to 21.7% (35 of 161) of cases therapeutic complications directly contributed to death.

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Author notes

The authors have no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.

Presented in poster form at the 2019 United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology annual meeting; March 19, 2019; National Harbor, Maryland.