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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Forensic Pathology: A Profession in Trouble

     Forensic pathologists are physicians educated and trained to determine the cause and manner of death in cases involving violent, sudden, or unexplained fatalities. The cause of death is the medical reason the person died. One cause of death is asphyxia--lack of oxygen to the brain. It occurs as a result of drowning, suffocation, manual strangulation by ligature (such as by rope, belt, or length of cloth), crushing, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Other causes of death include blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, stabbing, slashing, poisoning, heart attack, stroke, or a sickness such as cancer, pneumonia, or heart disease.

     For the forensic pathologist, the most difficult task often involves detecting the manner of death--natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. This is because the manner of death isn't always revealed by the condition of the body. For example, a death resulting from a drug overdose could be the result of homicide, suicide, or accident. Knowing exactly how the fatal drug got into the victim's body requires additional information, data that usually comes from a police investigation. When the circumstances of a suspicious death are not ascertained or are sketchy, and the death was not an obvious homicide, the medical examiner (or coroner) might classify the manner of death as "undetermined."

     The autopsy, along with the crime-scene investigation, is the starting point, the foundation, of a homicide investigation. If something is missed or mishandled on the autopsy table, if the forensic pathologist draws the wrong conclusion from the evidence, the investigation is doomed.

     Up until the 1930s, before the English forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury glamorized the profession through a series of high-profile murder case solutions, forensic pathology was called "the beastly science." Today, in the U.S., there are about 400 practicing forensic pathologists. For medical examiner and coroner systems to work properly, we need at least 800 of these practitioners. On average, about 35 of the 15,000 students who enroll in medical school every year graduate to become forensic pathologists. Recently, 12 of the nation's 37 forensic pathology programs had no students.

     Forensic pathologists in the United States are overworked. Given the nature of the job, they are under constant pressure from politicians, prosecutors, homicide investigators, families of the deceased, and the media. The pay is relatively low, they often work in unsanitary morgue conditions, and in many jurisdictions, have run out of space to store dead bodies. Many forensic pathologists have burned out, and more than a few have had mental breakdowns.    

1 comment:

  1. You know what annoys me, Mr. Fisher? Reading that someone's cause of death is "cardiac arrest"- cardiac arrest means the heart stopped! It is NOT a cause of death- it IS death, at least clinically! Whatever made that heart stop is the cause of death!
    Thank you for reading...................... Sincerely, Madame Xanthippe.

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