By Anna Soubry, MP, Public Health Minister
We rely on our National Health Service to give the best possible care to us and our loved ones at every stage of our lives. The range of ways in which it does this is huge – bringing babies into the world, caring for the sick, both old and young, and being there to help make sure our final days are as comfortable and dignified as possible.
Many of us remember someone who went that extra mile for us when we were in the care of the NHS – whether it was a practice nurse in the local GP surgery, a clinician in an A&E or a helpful receptionist in a busy hospital. For many, it is those individual touches that can make all the difference to how they view their care and even to how well they recover.
But there is more to our experiences of the health service than the doctors and nurses we meet along the way. For many patients and families, it is just as important that the systems and processes that they come into contact with are respectful or their needs, their wishes and their values.
Nowhere is this more true than when a person passes away. Whether death is expected or not, the processes and rituals that take place when someone dies are deeply engrained in different cultures. Individuals and their loved ones understandably want to ensure that their cultural needs are taken into account.
Post mortem examinations commissioned by coroners have traditionally involved an invasive internal medical examination of the body by a pathologist. Faith groups, including from the Muslim community, have lobbied over a number of years for less invasive post mortem techniques, such as the use of scanners, to be more widely available. This means that cause of death can be established with minimal disruption to the body.
Such techniques are undertaken by specially trained radiologists who use CT or MRI scanners to look inside the body. It can establish which cases will need an invasive post mortem. While an invasive autopsy may still be required, it can provide comfort to many to know that every attempt has been made to avoid this.
Research commissioned by the Department of Health supports the idea of people being referred for an imaging process first. Guidance published by the University of Leicester last year also looked at how the NHS might consider implementing more widespread provision of this service. Clinical guidance on standards has been issued and in January the Chief Coroner issued advice to ensure that the wishes of bereaved families are taken into account when making a decision.
The provision of this service, like all health services, is a matter for local health commissioners to decide. But it is available in some areas and over time, could be made available in more. Whilst the costs involved must be taken into account, the key is that all options are considered by coroners and pathologists and that people are aware of the choices they may have.
Thanks to the research and guidance that has been published, people can be confident that these options are being properly weighed up. Where it is possible to offer a non-invasive post-mortem, they can be sure that their wishes are being taken into account and their religious and cultural needs respected.