Hayley Owen Blog

Hayley Owen Blog


Digital AutopsiesPosted by Hayley Owen Sat, August 19, 2017 14:20:29


According to good old Wikipedia (!), a post-mortem examination or autopsy “is a highly specialised surgical procedure that consists of a thorough examination of a corpse by dissection to determine the cause and manner of death and to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present.”

If that all sounds rather clinical that’s because it is, with a procedure that’s been more or less the same for about 300 years! But it’s obviously vital to find out the cause of death and the circumstances surrounding a person’s death when the situation is unclear. However, a traditional post-mortem, as outlined above, has often meant another layer of upset for a bereaved family.

ENTER MODERN TECHNOLOGY! Once again it has come to the rescue (think washing machines, cookers, boilers and fridges, just for starters!) Now, the digital autopsy is starting to have an impact on the sector I work in. For instead of being cut, the body is scanned, which takes just a few minutes. Then, the data from the scan is processed to create a 3D reconstruction of the deceased person.

Experts examine this to look for clues on the cause of death and the results can, where necessary, easily be shared with colleagues, wherever they are. Other advantages include less risk of infection (eg if the deceased had HIV) and helping police to solve crimes. Furthermore, both Jews and Muslims stress a quick burial and not violating the body, so they may find a digital autopsy a better option than an old-fashioned post-mortem.

Digital autopsy technology, originally from Malaysia, arrived in Britain less than five years ago. The first site opened in Sheffield and now Bradford and West Bromwich also have facilities, with an agreement in place for Lancashire to follow suit.

The main fly in the ointment to the spread of these 21st century autopsies is that each one costs around £500, payable when requested by a family and the coroner agrees to that request, and also in cases where the family contacts the firm, iGene, directly. Some local authorities provide the service free of charge when a post-mortem is required.

Many families are willing to pay for the service, such as the family of 80-year-old Marjorie Greenhoff who died suddenly after a short illness. She was taken to hospital after weeks of a heart complaint and incidents involving choking on her food and being unable to eat; within a week she had died.

The death certificate recorded the official cause of death as a chest infection and cardiac arrest, but the old lady's family wanted more answers.

They contacted iGene and a scientist there explained the scanning process and requested the medical records. Scans then showed Mrs Greenhoff had a condition where the oesophagus loses the ability to move food and a blockage leads to food entering the lungs. Her daughter Sue, from Barnsley in South Yorkshire, expressed her gratitude. She said: “We needed peace of mind and they provided it to us; that has really helped us to move on.”

Last year Sheffield crime writer Michael Wood released his novel ‘Outside Looking In’, featuring a character based on one of iGene’s radiographers. It could really help to raise the profile of the digital autopsy, which looks like it’s here to stay.

I know what book I’m looking for when I next hit Waterstones……..

Until next time,


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