Rural Versus Urban Trauma: Demographic Influences on Autopsy Rates1

Joseph Zabell, Marcus Nashelsky, Timothy Thomsen, Michele A. Alpen, G. Patrick Kealey, Timothy D. Light

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: The autopsy has long been considered the gold standard for quality assurance review. Studies characterizing autopsies have been completed in large urban centers, but there is a paucity of research regarding autopsies at rural trauma centers. This is problematic considering that a majority of preventable trauma deaths occur in rural areas and death rates for unintentional injuries in rural populations are higher than urban populations. Rural trauma centers have differing characteristics warranting further research into the demographic differences between rural and urban trauma patients and the effects on autopsy rates. Materials and Methods: This is a demographic study of a rural trauma center, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), with the goal of identifying characteristics of trauma patients on whom autopsy was performed. Four hundred ninety-six deaths were identified from the trauma registry between January 2002 and May 2007 (231 of which were autopsied) and demographic data (including age, race, length of hospital stay, etc.) regarding these patients was gathered into a database. Univariate and multivariate linear regression models were used to analyze differences between autopsied and non-autopsied trauma patients. Autopsy rate and basic demographics were also compared with 2 recent reports from urban trauma centers. Results: Autopsied patients were younger than non-autopsied patients (mean age 45 y versus 71 y; P < 0.0001) and have a shorter median length of hospital stay (1 d versus 4 d; P < 0.0001). Autopsy rates for patients with blunt trauma were lower than rates for patients with penetrating or burn trauma (42% versus 67% and 56%; P = 0.004). If patients died while on a subspecialty service, they were less likely to have an autopsy. Compared with urban centers, this rural trauma center had lower autopsy rates, higher rates of blunt trauma, a higher mean age of deceased patients, and a lower percentage of males. Conclusions: UIHC, a rural trauma center, has a number of demographic characteristics that make it unique from urban trauma centers: an older population, lower percentage of male trauma patients, higher rates of blunt trauma, and lower rates of penetrating trauma. All of these factors influenced the lower rate of autopsies completed at rural trauma centers. Within a rural trauma center, those patients less likely to receive autopsy were older patients, those who died after 48 h in the hospital, and patients who suffered blunt injuries. The demographics of trauma patients most likely to receive an autopsy tend to correspond with those of an urban trauma population, thus providing a demographic explanation for the variation in autopsy rates among trauma systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)132-135
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Surgical Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
JZ was supported in part by NIH Training Grant HL007485-28.


  • autopsy
  • rural
  • trauma
  • urban


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