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Ultrasound in legal medicine—a missed opportunity or simply too late? A narrative review of ultrasonic applications in forensic contexts

  • Möbius, Dustin1
  • Fitzek, Antonia1
  • Hammer, Niels2, 3, 4
  • Heinemann, Axel1
  • Ron, Alexandra1
  • Schädler, Julia1
  • Zwirner, Johann1, 5
  • Ondruschka, Benjamin1
  • 1 University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf,
  • 2 University of Graz,
  • 3 University of Leipzig,
  • 4 Fraunhofer IWU,
  • 5 University of Otago,
Published Article
International Journal of Legal Medicine
Publication Date
Jul 22, 2021
DOI: 10.1007/s00414-021-02661-5
PMID: 34292383
PMCID: PMC8295453
PubMed Central
  • Review


Objectives Conventional autopsies remain the gold standard of postmortem healthcare quality assurance and help gathering extended knowledge on diseases. In answer to constantly declining autopsy rates non- or minimally invasive autopsy methods were introduced. Ultrasound is a well-established tool for imaging commonly used in clinical practice. This narrative review aims to summarize the current literature regarding the feasibility and validity of ultrasound in a forensic context. Material and methods A PubMed database search was carried out. Abstracts were scanned for pre-defined ex- and inclusion criteria, followed by a snowball search procedure applied to the primarily included articles. Results Forty-five publications met our inclusion criteria. The selected articles concern the feasibility of ultrasound in pre- or postmortem settings, forensic age estimation, and minimally invasive approaches. For imaging, ultrasound was deemed a reliable tool for the examination of epiphyses und superficial wounds, with limitations regarding internal organs and image quality due to postmortem changes. Ultrasound-guided minimally invasive approaches yielded higher success rates for adequate tissue sampling. Many investigations were carried out in low- and middle-income countries focusing on infectious diseases. Conclusion Ultrasound seems a promising but underutilized imaging tool in legal medicine to date. Promising approaches on its feasibility have been conducted. Especially for minimally invasive methods, ultrasound offered significant improvements on qualified biopsy sampling and thus appropriate diagnostics. Moreover, ultrasonic evaluation of epiphyses for age estimation offered valuable results. Nevertheless, further assessment of ultrasonic feasibility in forensic contexts is needed.

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