Autopsy as a Service

by jeremy on October 26, 2013

This is a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC 

Is it possible to disrupt a business that is, well, dying? 

Malaysian entrepreneur Matt Chandran thinks so. He wants to revive the post-mortem by replacing the scalpel with a scanner and the autopsy slab with a touchscreen computer.

He believes his so-called digital autopsy could largely displace the centuries-old traditional knife-bound one, speeding up investigations, reducing the stress on grieving families and placating religious sensibilities. And, he hopes, change the way not only pathologists but also doctors work. 

He is confident there’s money in what he calls his Autopsy as a Service — basically conducting a post mortem via a scanner and some pretty advanced 3d imaging software.  The first of his company’s digital autopsy facilities will open in the British town of Bradford on November 1. 

Here’s his logic: Around 70 million people die each year and around a tenth of those deaths are legal cases that require an autopsy. Right now these are done the old-fashioned way, expensively. Grab a slice of that, so to speak, and you’re in business. 

There are obstacles. First off, post mortems are dying out. While humans have been cutting each other open for at least 3,000 years to learn more about death,  the autopsy these days is rarely embraced outside TV crime dramas.

Chandran sees his offering as way to make the autopsy palatable again. Plug his software into any standard medical CT or MRI scanner, train an expert into how to use it and you remove layers of cloth, skin and bone with a mouse or by gestures on a tabletop touchscreen.

Much easier, he says, and less destructive of evidence. And not new – the idea has been around for a couple of decades. Chandran is the first to believe he can see money in it. He pays for and builds the scanning facilities and then makes money from those families who prefer to have their loved ones scanned rather than autopsied if a post mortem is deemed necessary.

Families, officials, hospitals would pay, he reckons, because it would make everything simpler, faster, cleaner — and offer a permanent record. 

For Chandran, this is just the beginning: eventually he hopes, these facilities would not only help us better understand the dead but also scan the living, providing a global library of scans for doctors to better diagnose patients. Instead of using a blood samples and urine tests to figure out what’s wrong with us a GP would take a scan and peer inside us via his computer as we sit patiently by. 

Not everyone is happy of course, from pathologists who say their skills aren’t just in looking, but feeling, smelling and sensing a cadaver, to pioneers in the imaging field who say the technology isn’t ready for primetime.

And then there are those who wonder about Chandran’s business model. For it to work he not only has to convince a few local councils to let him in: he needs to change our whole way of thinking about the role autopsies play. 

Right now we treat autopsies much as we treat death — the less discussed the better. That deprives us, Chandran believes, of insights into the body, disease and death that we could benefit from.  

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