Overdose Deaths Swamp State Medical Examiner's Office

Jan 26, 2017

During his annual State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert called on lawmakers to help end Utah’s drug epidemic, which has severely stretched the resources of state health agencies — including the office in charge of issuing autopsy reports.

Dr. Erik Christensen, the state’s new chief medical examiner, testified before a House Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week that their office reviewed more than 3,000 cases last year, an increase of more than 8 percent.

He says the majority of cases they’re handling these days are suicides and drug overdoses — cases which take more resources to review.

“The autopsy itself is quick, but the determination of the levels of drugs in their system requires investigation of a lot of factors to make a determination if it was intentional or accidental,” he says. “Our sort of ongoing comment in the office is, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for drug overdoses, we’d be adequately staffed.’”

Lawmakers appropriated roughly $1 million last session to address staffing and turnaround issues that have caused a severe backlog in autopsy reports. Christensen says although their goal is to reduce their final report time to 45 days, they’re still well above that.

“At the time that we were requesting funds last year, our turnaround time for reports was about 150 days," he says. "Currently, so far this year to date, it’s about 110 days.”

 

The state needs to reduce its report time to below 90 days before it can become nationally accredited, a rating its lacked for two decades. Christensen says this fact, along with low pay and long hours, makes it harder to attract more talent.

 

He says they’ve made some progress though, hiring three full-time pathologists, who are scheduled to start this summer. But he anticipates his office will continue to face challenges with a grueling workload and rapid population growth in the region.