When a death occurs in a hospital it can be due to any number of reasons; a sudden and unexpected death as a result of injuries sustained in an accident, following palliative care or even due to unforeseen complications during surgery. Whatever the cause of death, there are due processes that a hospital will follow immediately after the event.
In this guide, we take a closer look at the order of what takes place when someone dies in hospital including what happens regarding organ donation as well as give you some advice on the steps you should follow after death.
What Is the Process If Someone Dies in Hospital?
When someone dies in a hospital, the staff who are responsible for the care of the patient up until death will continue to provide the family of the deceased with support.
In the first instance, it is usual for hospital staff to inform the next of kin (if they were not present at the time of death, see below) and grieving relatives may be able to see the deceased in-situ before the body is moved. Most wards normally arrange for the deceased to be temporarily moved to a private room/area to allow this to happen.
Some hospitals may ask the next of kin to formally identify the deceased and, depending on the circumstances of death, may also request permission to conduct a most-mortem examination. This is not standard procedure but is required in cases where the cause of death is not confirmed.
The deceased will then be transferred to the hospital’s mortuary where they will be laid out before arrangements can be made for a funeral director (or other party as required by the family) to collect them. There are no laws on this aspect of the process but most hospitals follow Good Practice guidelines issued by the Department of Health which may require the next of kin to sign a release form.
Meanwhile, a doctor will issue the next of kin with a medical certificate confirming the cause of death. Please note that this differs from a death certificate which you are formally required to obtain after death at the local register office (see below). If, however, the cause of death is yet to be confirmed or the death has been referred to a coroner for further inquiry then this medical certificate will not be issued.
Most hospitals have specialist bereavement officers on their staff who will be informed and who may offer their support and use of spaces like the hospital chapel, gardens or private offices.
Who Will Contact You If You Are Not Present When Someone Dies?
The hospital will only contact the named next of kin when informing relatives and people close to a patient who has died.
It is standard hospital procedure not to give out personal information to any other parties, even in the case of death.
A telephone call of this nature is usually undertaken by either the ward staff directly responsible for the care of a patient or, some hospitals have, a specialist bereavement support officer.
Depending on the circumstances of the death, you may be informed by a doctor/surgeon or, in rare cases, directly by the hospital’s Administrator.
What About Organ Donation?
There are several laws in effect throughout the UK which have an impact on organ donation procedures.
In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the current laws are based on an ‘Opt-In’ process whereas in Wales the situation is reversed and patients must specifically ‘Opt-Out’ of organ donation.
This means that organ donation cannot take place in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland unless there was an express consent made by the deceased prior to death. This can take the form of an organ donation card, giving consent to the NHS Organ Donor Register or having completed the relevant forms with the hospital on admission.
In Wales, consent is deemed to have been given unless there is an express wish made by the deceased prior to death that they did not want their organs, tissue or body donated to medical science.
The laws are currently under review and it is expected that both Scotland and England will change to a similar system to that in Wales (named an ‘Opt- Out’ process) by April 2020.
If you are aware that the deceased specifically wished for their organs, tissue or body to be donated to medical science then it is best to advise the hospital of this as soon after death as possible. If death occurs at a hospital in Wales then you will need to advise hospital staff of any objections that the deceased may have had to this.
What Steps Do You Need to Take Following a Death in Hospital?
After a death has occurred in a hospital, you will need to arrange for the deceased’s body to be collected from the mortuary. Typically, this is done via a funeral director who you have appointed to arrange cremation or burial with but can also be done by other methods including collection by relatives.
You must register the death with the local register office and obtain a death certificate within five days following the date of death. This can be delayed up to nine days if you advise the registrar that a medical certificate has been issued. However, deaths may not be registered if they have been reported to a coroner for further investigation.
You should locate a copy of the Last Will and Testament, if the deceased made one, and advise the appointed Executor(s) of their role. It is also worth having the Executor read the will carefully to ascertain if there are any specific instructions contained within which relate to the deceased’s wishes for their funeral. Whilst there is no legal obligation to fulfil these, most family members would prefer to do so.
What If You Have Cause for Concern over the Way the Hospital Has Handled a Death?
If, for any reason, you have a complaint about the way a hospital has dealt with a death including the care received before death, then you will need to follow the hospital’s individual complaints procedure.
Further support is also offered by:
- Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman which handles complaints made against the NHS in England.
- Local Health Boards which cover the services run by the NHS in Scotland.
- Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman for complaints in NI.
- The Board of Community Health Councils for services in Wales.
If death occurred at a private hospital and you are unhappy with the way they are handling your complaint then you can seek further assistance from the Independent Sector Complaints Adjudication Service.
You can also seek support from the Care Quality Commission who regulate public and private sector health care in England.