Forensic pathologist shortage comes amid record year for autopsies at state crime lab

In 2017, the medical examiner's office at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory performed nearly 1,600 autopsies, a record year according to the lab's executive director. (Photo: KATV)

On average it takes a little more than three hours to complete an autopsy inside the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, not including toxicology reports which take upwards of a month to complete. Last year, the state medical examiner's office performed close to 1,600 autopsies on bodies from all 75 counties across Arkansas.

"That's a record for the state," said Kermit Channell, executive director of the Arkansas State Crime Lab.

Channell says 2017's record number of autopsies are largely in part due to an increase in drug overdoses, a higher volume of homicides and county coroners sending a larger number of unattended deaths to be examined to determine a more exact cause of death.

But according to Channell, the number of autopsies handled by the state's five forensic pathologists and chief medical examiner slightly balked at national crime lab standards for accreditation.

"A medical examiner shouldn't do more than 250 autopsies a year," said Channell. "It becomes critical when that number increases."

So far this year, forensic pathologists have only had to perform 243 autopsies; it puts the medical examiner's office on pace for a slower 2018, However the office is now down a forensic pathologist, from a total of six to five to perform all of the state's postmortem examinations to determine not only cause of death but also manner of death.

"We don’t want to get in a situation where we’re rushing through anything because the workload is climbing," said Channell, adding that the position has already been posted after the job opened up a little more than a week ago.

Channell said it'll likely be hard to find a replacement, claiming the process could take upwards of two years. The head of the crime lab said there's a national shortage of forensic pathologists, with dozens of openings in medical examiners offices across the country.

"These individuals really aren't going into the field as much as they used to," said Channell. "The number is dwindling and lot of that is because the pay structure between a hospital pathologist and a forensic pathologist isn't on an equal playing field."

Pay is part of the reason for the most recent departure from the medical examiner's office; the forensic pathologist taking a job in Georgia for higher pay, according to Channell.

Compensation for forensic pathologists is competitive, said Channell, saying starting salary for a forensic pathologist at the state crime lab is around $175,000 with more being offered for a higher level of experience. Hospital pathologists stand to make nearly $100,000 more per year, which Channell said certainly doesn't incentivize medical students to pursue a career in the criminal justice side of medicine.

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