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Shortage in Forensic Pathologists Slows Down Autopsies in Washington

Shortage in Forensic Pathologists Slows Down Autopsies in Washington

It was in the September of this year, when there was a floatplane crash took place in the Mutiny Bay. 10 people died in that crash. On the shores of Dungeness Spit located on northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, a human torso was found, which might have washed off there.

When the authorities of Clallam County got the information, the remains were transferred to Thurston County because of the lack of specialised forensic pathologist in the rural Clallam County.

This lead to the delay in the autopsy of the remains and the identity was established after three months. The torso belonged to a 66 years old Patricia Hicks, a retired school teacher who was among the 10 victims aboard the plane crash.

With this case, an issue of national and statewide shortage of forensic pathologists has been highlighted.

Clallam County deputy coroner, Nathan Millett says that, right now there aren’t enough doctors to do the autopsies in the country and with drugs and violence skyrocketing in the last couple of years, it’s getting to be a real critical work-shortage problem.

According to the president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, there are about 500 forensic pathologists in the United States. Out of these Washington has 18, three of them work in the eastern region, and 11 of whom work through King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

It has been told that the recommended caseload for a forensic pathologist is 250 to 325 cases a year, but in the past five years more doctors have been forced to perform more autopsies annually. In fact in King County, it is closer to 400 cases a year.

The coroners are compelled to rely on techniques like X-rays and medical records for investigating the deaths, due to shortage of trained forensic pathologists.

In cases such as homicides, where autopsies are the first step to start an investigation, the shortage can mean deaths take longer to investigate, that makes it impossible to meet the state’s 90-day deadline to close cases.

Part of the delay is also exacerbated by backed-up toxicology labs, as a toxicology report can take 60 to 90 days.

One of the estimated reasons of this shortage can be that the forensic pathology field is neither well-advertised nor well-paid, nationwide. In fact, only 20 graduates a year finish a fellowship that prepares them to be a board-certified forensic pathologist.

The issue has been raised by the National Association of Medical Examiners for nearly two decades, but satisfactory results have not been obtained till now.

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