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Because of the scant amount of literature regarding nursing students and their perceptions of autopsies, we conducted this qualitative, phenomenological study. Students taking the medical- surgical nursing course in our school have the opportunity to view autopsies every semester with a physician who is also a board-certified forensic pathologist. The autopsies are performed at a local midsized hospital. This was a phenomenological, qualitative study with 23 participants that extended over a 4-month period. An online survey was developed addressing the cognitive, emotional, and societal dimensions of their perceptions during the autopsy. The sample was a convenience sample comprised primarily of 18- to 21-year-old, white, female nursing students. The autopsy was a voluntary experience.


Rich data emerged about the students' experiences, including emotional, psychological, and knowledge-based themes. Students reported feeling personalization and empathy. Anxiety, excitement, and apprehension were expressed regarding the beginning of the autopsy, whereas desensitization occurred in later stages of the viewings. The students also indicated they acquired knowledge about anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology from viewing the autopsies. Overwhelmingly, the students found this experience beneficial, especially about the knowledge they gained.


By Emily J. Cannon, DNP, RN, Renee N. Bauer, PhD, RN, Assistant Professors, School of Nursing, College of Health and Human Services, Indiana State University, Terre Haute (