Virtopsy: A Non-Invasive Approach to Forensic Pathology

What is Virtopsy?

Combining the words “virtual” and “autopsy”, a virtopsy is the non-invasive use of broad-spectrum imaging to determine the cause and manner of death in cases where a person has died under suspicious or unknown circumstances. When possible, a thorough external examination of the body will be conducted, noting and collecting any physical evidence that would ordinarily be obtained in a traditional autopsy. Virtopsies include several types of scans in order to create a full picture of a body’s condition at the time of examination. The most common of these scans include: 

  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scans, which are used for angiography, documenting skeletal fractures, foreign bodies, and gas buildup and distribution in the body
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which is the preferred scanning technique for soft tissue examination
  • 3D Photogrammetry-Based Surface Scans, originally used for the scanning of vehicles, has been adapted to take highly detailed scans of a body’s exterior. These scans present and preserve an accurate record of the condition of a body’s surface at the time of examination. 

Development of the Method

The use of scanning technology in forensic pathology is not entirely new. X-rays have been part of the autopsy process as early as the 1880s, and CT scans have been documented as being used (albeit sparsely) since the 1970s. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, however, that a group of pathologists led by Richard Dirnhofer set out to create a system of autopsy that negated the need for dissection of a body. Since the Virtopsy® project’s creation, Switzerland has adopted it as its main method of autopsy. Virtopsy has spread internationally since that time, but has yet to create the same foothold on a global scale that it has in Switzerland.

Advantages and drawbacks

There are many reasons why a medical examiner or forensic pathologist might prefer to conduct a virtopsy instead of a traditional autopsy. If the family of the deceased practices a religion that opposes body mutilation, if the body still requires identification, or if the body is toxic to handle, virtopsy is an effective alternative to traditional autopsy. It also offers detailed visual records that can a) be taken without moving any foreign bodies, meaning that scans can show exactly where and how the foreign body came into contact with the internal structures of the deceased, and b) be used in court and referenced by medical professionals after the scans are taken.

Despite all of the apparent advantages that virtopsies offer forensic professionals, they are not yet utilized regularly outside of Switzerland. This is largely due to the cost associated with the equipment necessary to perform a virtopsy. CT, MRI, and 3D Photogrammetry equipment are all extremely expensive, which makes them inaccessible for many communities that could make use of them.

To Learn More

University of Bern logo

Virtopsy was developed through the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, in Switzerland. To learn more about the Institute of Forensic Medicine, visit

For more information about virtopsy, visit

To view our published texts related to forensic pathology, visit our eLibrary at


STM Learning, Inc. is dedicated to bringing the most up-to-date medical information and resources to the public. While we do not currently feature virtopsies in any of our publications, we are constantly working to update our books to meet the quickly evolving standards that the medical field requires. To learn more about forensic, legal, clinical, and social work issues, visit our eLibrary or our social media accounts. You can follow us on Instagram (@stmlearning), Twitter (@stmlearning), Facebook (STM Learning, Inc.), and LinkedIn (STM Learning, Inc.). 


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