Artificial intelligence technology helps virtual autopsies outnumber invasive post-mortem procedures

Forensic imaging, augmented reality headsets and artificial intelligence could reduce the need for invasive autopsies, saving families from further trauma, according to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM).

In many cases, “virtual autopsies” can be performed by forensic pathologists to determine a cause of death, says the VIFM deputy director Richard Bassed.

The images are generated using CT scans, which can survey a dead body and collect sensitive, specific and accurate information about it.

“Physical autopsies take time, they’re distressing for families and there’s lots of religious and cultural reasons why people might not want an autopsy in any particular case,” Dr Bassed said.

“And they’re expensive, so anything we can do to reduce the number of autopsies without compromising the validity and accuracy of the work is a good thing.”

Monash University PhD student Vahid Poorousef has made a prototype using an augmented reality (AR) headset that allows a user to see the room around them.

The technology means a pathologist wearing the headset could dissect a virtual 3D projection of a body, while simultaneously looking at the physical body in the mortuary along with relevant police or medical reports.

Dr Bassed said the headset and imaging technologies were already here, and the project was a way for pathologists to easily interact with the images to determine the cause of death.

Imaging already reducing autopsies

Technology has already drastically reduced the need for autopsies in Victoria.

Before a CT scanner was introduced at the VIFM in 2005 nearly all cases required an autopsy, Dr Bassed said.

Today autopsies are required in less than half of their cases.

Dr Bassed believes harnessing a combination of AR and artificial intelligence (AI) technology could reduce that rate even further.

“I doubt we will ever get down to zero, but that’s the holy grail — that everything in forensic medicine is just done by imaging,” he said.

The VIFM has had this CT scanner since 2005.(Supplied: VIFM)

Teaching for real-world use

Dr Bassed became inspired to investigate AR virtual autopsies four years ago when his colleagues took him to Monash University’s vision lab.

They were using virtual reality headsets to teach anatomy to medical students.

“You’d get a 3D version of a heart sitting there in mid-air and you could dissect it with your fingers,” he said.

“I thought this would be fantastic if we could do this to real dead people in the mortuary.”

A man in a light blue suit and white spotted shirt in front of a bookshelf.
Richard Bassed is exploring how technology can be used to reduce the need for physical autopsies.(ABC News: Matilda Marozzi)

Now the first prototypes have been completed, Dr Bassed is hoping to introduce the technology at VIFM in the next two to three years.

“It gives you more flexibility with what you’re looking at … than seeing it on a two-dimensional screen,” he said.

You get a much better view of reality.

“For example, if somebody comes in with a knife in their chest, on a 2D screen you have to go through each individual slice to see where the knife is going.

“But in a 3D reconstruction, you can see exactly where that knife has gone.”

Diagnosis determined by AI

Dr Bassed is also working on a project that could see AI interpreting post-mortem scans and automatically diagnosing problems.


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