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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011
Steps to a higher autopsy rate
The number of bodies inspected by the police has been rising year by year, but in 2010, autopsies were conducted on only about 11 percent of them. On July 26, Cabinet ministers concerned decided to start a working team to study how to raise the autopsy rate to 20 percent in five years. The team will be composed of officials from various government bodies including the National Police Agency, the health and welfare ministry and the education and science ministry.
Since 1988, there have been at least 43 cases in which the police initially determined that the deaths were not crime-related but, after further investigation, decided that crimes had been committed.
In 2010, about 171,000 bodies were inspected by the police. The police suspected that crimes led to 8,000 of the deaths, and judicial autopsies were conducted on the bodies. Administrative autopsies were conducted on another 11,000 bodies to determine the causes of death even though crimes were not suspected.
There is a dire nationwide shortage of forensic examiners and doctors who conduct autopsies. There is also a gap between large cities and the countryside in the number of those experts.
Of the autopsies conducted on the some 19,000 bodies, some 12,000 or 64.9 percent were done in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kanagawa where, apart from police forensic experts, medical examiners' offices are functioning.
While the autopsy rate was 23.2 percent in these four areas, the corresponding figure was only 5.8 percent in other areas. The working team must develop measures to ensure a high and equalized autopsy rate anywhere in Japan.
At present there are only about 170 doctors nationwide who conduct autopsies when the cause of death is thought to be unnatural. At least theoretically, increasing the autopsy rate from the current 11 percent to 20 percent could be obtained by doubling the number of such doctors.
In April 2011, a panel at the NPA proposed establishing a system in which authorities conduct an autopsy — even without the consent of the bereaved family — when an unnatural death is suspected.
The government should make concrete efforts to improve the autopsy system, including nurturing police forensic experts and doctors who conduct autopsies.