A report from the Wisconsin State Journal revealed Friday the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted 827 autopsies in 2017, a 70 percent increase from 2015.
Starting in 2015, Dane County’s medical examiners were tasked with conducting autopsies from other counties in addition to their own. Autopsies from the counties of Rock, Brown and Door were also conducted at the Dane County coroner’s office.
A 2009 report from the National Research Council recommended that all autopsies be performed or supervised by a board-certified forensic pathologist. According to the same report, however, the number of board-certified forensic pathologists in the nation is insufficient.
A 2013 report from the National Association of Medical Examiners found the national average number of forensic pathologists per 1 million people to be 3.7, meaning each pathologist conducts roughly 222 autopsies a year.
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After one of Dane County’s three forensic examiners resigned in 2016, the two remaining examiners were tasked with representing five counties and 1,024,311 people in 2017, a number below the national average.
With only two examiners tasked with doing the work meant for four, Dane County’s medical examiners each performed 413 autopsies, almost double the National Association of Medical Examiners’ recommended workload.
The opioid epidemic has hit Wisconsin especially hard, increasing workloads for the state’s already-strained medical examiners. In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services found 614 reportedly died from an opioid overdose.
In a 2015 report from the National Commission on Forensic Science, an average of only 27 people from across the country become board-certified forensic pathologists each year, and only 21 of those go on to work as a forensic pathologist full-time.
Wisconsin does not require coroners or medical examiners to have medical training, but it does require a board-certified, medically-trained forensic pathologist to conduct autopsies.
Due to a lack of medically-trained pathologists across the state, WSJ found smaller counties in Wisconsin send their corpses to four larger offices: Dane County, Milwaukee County, Waukesha County or the University of Wisconsin hospital.
Medical examiners, coroners and forensic pathologists conduct autopsies to determine important facts about the deceased, such as the cause of death or criminal involvement in the person’s death.
A lack of resources means those conducting autopsies must cut corners, which can result in incorrect diagnoses of the cause of death. For instance, a person who was murdered and a person who has a heart attack could both be mistakenly said to have died of natural causes.
To meet some of the demands, WSJ found the county board had included funding in its 2018 budget for two new investigators, with one already on staff. This is expected to allow Dane County to honor the commitments it made to smaller counties in 2015 and 2016.