Ohio coroner's offices face staffing shortage during spike in cases

Posted at 9:17 AM, Sep 12, 2016

Coroner's offices in central Ohio are struggling to fill positions as caseloads increase and more doctors seek employment in the private sector.

The number of cases Ohio coroners and medical examiners are handling has increased amid a drug-overdose crisis sweeping the state, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Besides homicides and questionable child deaths, Franklin County's office does autopsies on about 95 percent of overdose cases, said Coroner Anahi Ortiz. Examiners sometimes rely on toxicology reports and external examinations if an overdose cause is obvious.

The office performed 1,778 autopsies in 2015, up from 1,420 in 2014. That number is expected to jump to 1,854 cases in 2016. Records show the office has four forensic pathologists and one chief deputy coroner.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that offices in Ohio are facing the risk of losing national accreditation due to a stagnant pool of pathologists and increasing cases. Officials say losing accreditation could damage their credibility when testifying in court.

Too few pathologists also means that family members must wait longer for death certificates, potentially delaying insurance payouts.

"We have to decide which (cases) we are going to autopsy and which we're not," Ortiz said.

Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said that when examiners start performing more than 250 cases a year per pathologist, the error rate starts to go up.

Ohio coroners and medical examiners are considering alternatives and ways to limit the cases in which they conduct a full autopsy, such as relying on CT scans rather than full autopsies in some cases.

Ortiz said county commissioners have agreed to increase the base pay for a new pathologist from $144,000 a year to $164,000. At least two of the county's pathologists are nearing retirement, she said.

"This is a recruitment, retention issue," Fowler said. "You have to remain competitive."