This study aimed to determine the frequency of fatal pulmonary emboli in hospitalised medical patients by a retrospective necropsy review and prospective non-interventional patient follow up study. The main outcome measure, necropsy proven fatal pulmonary embolism, was determined from 400 consecutive necropsy records and 200 consecutive medical inpatient episodes. Fatal pulmonary embolism was recorded in 29 of 400 necropsies; 17 were medical patients. Thirty one of 200 consecutive medical patients died. Fourteen necropsies were performed and revealed pulmonary embolism as the cause of death in five patients. The incidence of necropsy proven fatal pulmonary embolism was therefore 2.5% (95% confidence intervals 0.8% to 5.7%). Therefore, one in 40 medical patients had pulmonary embolism recorded as the cause of death at necropsy. As the necropsy rate was only 45% the incidence of fatal pulmonary embolism may be greater. There is, therefore, a need to perform more large prospective studies to confirm the incidence of fatal pulmonary embolism in medical patients and to identify risk factors and effective antithrombotic prophylaxis.
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