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Home > Research > Research Projects List > Medical student attitudes towards post mortem examination

Medical student attitudes towards post mortem examination


Medical students' attitudes towards post mortem examination and its utility in medical education

Principal research question:  

To investigate in detail the attitudes of students who attend post mortems and to assess their use as part of medical school education. 

Examination of the dead has been an essential element in the training of medical doctors. The dissection of the dead body has been regarded as a useful technique for teaching two primary medical disciplines: anatomy and histopathology. Anatomy has traditionally been taught through the process of dissection, carried out on embalmed cadavers donated to University Anatomy Departments. The attitudes of students towards dissection and the decline of dissection as a tool for anatomy teaching have been extensively described and researched elsewhere.

The second discipline taught through the medium of dissection is histopathology. This tends to be taught through students attending routine post mortem examinations which are undertaken in teaching and peripheral hospitals.

The post mortem examination has been regarded as an excellent teaching resource for medical students for a number of reasons:

 (a)    It allows three dimensional revision of anatomy in a more clinical context.

(b)   It places the dry textbook descriptions of pathology into a clinical context

(c)    It promotes problem-solving skills, essential to medical practice

(d)   It provides an audit role such that students can see the results of treatment (good or bad) on the pathology of the individual and evaluate the efficacy of treatments they have observed on the wards

(e)    It is an excellent way of preparing students for the practical component of clinical pathology examinations

(f)     It helps students come to terms with the fact that many of their patients will die and that this is a normal part of medical practice

 Despite the benefits ascribed to post mortem examination, its use in medical education has declined. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Within normal medical practice post mortem as a technique in general has declined. Within medical education dissection has declined as a teaching technique and obligatory post mortem sessions and formal pathology teaching and examinations have been largely removed from medical curricula. While the reasons for the decline are not clear cut what is clear is that students no longer attend post mortems regularly, if at all, during their undergraduate medical education.

 Many pathologists and medical teachers still feel that the post mortem has great benefit in medical training for the reasons outlined above. Students on the Cambridge Graduate Course still attend at least one post mortem during their course (in addition to regular anatomical dissection).

Research questions:

  1. What are the attitudes of students to the post mortem examination in terms of its use
    1. As a technique in medicine and society?
    2. For teaching?
    3. On a personal level?
  2. What is the use of the post mortem as a tool for medical education?
  3. How can we better prepare students for the experience of a post mortem examination?
  4. How can we better support students who experience difficulties as a result of their exposure to the technique?
Methodology description:  

Primarily qualitative comprising 3 phases:

Phase 1: Brief background questionnaire survey to identify a possible maximum diversity sample of students to invite to subsequent discussion groups

Phase 2: Nominal group technique discussion for identification of themes and issues to form the basis for the focus group discussions

Phase 3: Two focus group discussions to explore in depth student attitudes and opinions about the post mortem informed by the themes and issues arising from the nominal group discussion.

Sample group description:  Three intake cohorts of Cambridge Graduate Course students (approximately 65 students). These students will have experienced both dissection and post mortem examinations.
Outcome measure description: Better understanding of students' attitudes towards post mortem examinations and their views as to the utility of these in their medical education.
The development of teaching sessions to help prepare students for the experience of visiting the mortuary and the development of better ways of supporting students who experience difficulty with this learning opportunity.
Project organisation
Start date: 02 February 2010
End date: 31 January 2011
Contact person:

Thelma Quince
General Practice and Primary Care Unit
Institute of Public Health
University Forvie Site
Robinson Way
Telephone: 01223 330364 
Fax: 01223 762515 
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Funding information
Funding organisation name:  None
Funding reference number:  None
Funding amount: £ None
Funding organisation name:  
Funding reference number:  
Funding amount: £
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 June 2010 12:37