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Pathologist in Fremont County is a good idea, but 'think big'

Jan 13, 2014 - Michael Heninger, M.D., Atlanta, Ga.

Editor:

I heard about your newspaper's coverage on doing autopsies in your own home town. Very interesting.

I grew up in Cache Valley Utah and still return home, driving across wonderful Wyoming, every year. I originally wanted to live up there, but my wife had other ideas. I am a forensic pathologist in one of the better offices in the country here in Atlanta Georgia going on now almost two decades.

I have one suggestion concerning your article about developing death investigation systems in Wyoming. Think big.

Utah and New Mexico have statewide medical examiner systems. These are much better and, especially, they are more cost effective when you consider the cost of botched murder investigations, and the wrong people going or not going to prison and subsequent lawsuits. They are the way to go. Dismantling other systems can be politically difficult but well worth it. The key is to not threaten the existing coroners with their elimination, but to transform them into death investigators with better salaries, better training and not having to stand for elections.

Colorado, Arizona and the left-coast states do not have statewide systems and they have many, many problems.

Idaho has hired one full time pathologist for Ada County (Boise) and neighboring Canyon County is looking to hire its own.

In my opinion, what Idaho is doing is precisely the wrong route to developing a better death investigation system. Wyoming has the chance to not make this mistake. People in the medical examiner's offices in both Utah and New Mexico would probably be willing to talk about the advantages. It would require the coroners of each Wyoming county to see the benefits and the state legislature to study and pass a new death investigation act. It would cost counties less, the state more, and probably be about the same cost overall.

The key to the medical examiner system working well is getting a good, experienced forensic pathologist. They require college, medical school, pathology residency, and a fellowship. This all takes more than 10 years. A general pathologist (who does not do a forensic fellowship) can earn on average around $250,000. Because we forensic pathologists work for government agencies our salaries, in spite of the additional year of training, are less but still in the $170,000 to $200,000 range. We do this because we like it.

Canyon County, Idaho, is offering a $98,000 salary. This is laughable. If they find someone at that price, he or she would have to be at the very bottom of the barrel. You don't want the worst person in any field pioneering your death investigation system. This is a formula for failure, scandal and future, multi-million dollar payouts.

Although I know Wyoming is a wonderful place to live, most people have opinions more in line with that of my wife.Saskatchewan, Canada, recently attempted to attract a forensic pathologist to Regina, and the salary advertised was over $300,000. But they were unable to get anyone to move there. Most spouses of forensic pathologists probably don't know the difference between Wyoming and Saskatchewan. What I am saying is you might have to offer a better salary than average to get a really good forensic pathologist to pioneer your system.

The other people working in a medical examiner's office can be trained on the job by a good forensic pathologist, especially if some of them have a decent background in law enforcement, and others in health care. In addition to the forensic pathologist, you need a team of investigators (think detectives) who write well, a photographer, a computer person, technicians to help with the autopsies, (move heavy bodies around and clean up big messes) and a couple of good administrative secretaries.

Anyway, the best of luck on improving death investigation In Wyoming.

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