Sun | Jan 26, 2020

Pathologists dead beat! - Though overworked on postmortems, scientists defend reliability of reports

Published:Thursday | November 28, 2019 | 12:42 AMNickoy Wilson/Gleaner Writer
Judith Mowatt, executive director of the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine, gives Dr Horace Chang, minister of national security, a tour of the Hope Boulevard, St Andrew, facility on Wednesday.
Judith Mowatt, executive director of the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine, gives Dr Horace Chang, minister of national security, a tour of the Hope Boulevard, St Andrew, facility on Wednesday.

Despite the number of government-employed pathologists doubling in the last three years, each of them is still carrying out 80 per cent more postmortem examinations annually than the globally accepted best practice cap of 250. Two years ago, they were conducting 170 per cent more postmortems than the global cap.

Data provided by the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine, which is responsible for conducting forensic examinations and analyses on physical evidence submitted by the police and other agencies, revealed that up to October, each pathologist has on average conducted 392 postmortem examinations. At current rate, they are on track to repeat the 453 examinations in 2018. Pathologists there conducted 691 examinations in 2017 and 588 in 2016.

Forensic pathologist Dr Althea Neblett said that the workload is just one of many issues.

In an interview with The Gleaner yesterday at the institute’s offices in St Andrew, she lamented that the facilities at contracted funeral homes in Westmoreland, St Catherine, and the Corporate Area, at which the country’s forensic pathologists are able to conduct autopsies, were inadequate.

“The funeral homes, they have basic specifications to allow them to become a contracted funeral home. However, to do our job as best as we can, they are lacking certain infrastructure,” Neblett said.

“So simple things like autopsy slabs, some funeral homes they only have gurneys. They don’t have drainage. They don’t have scales to weigh bodies. They may not have proper lighting, proper extractors, and the list can go on,” Neblett said.

The forensic pathologist also noted that bodies are not always stored at one of the contracted funeral homes and, therefore, have to be transported elsewhere.

According to fellow forensic pathologist Dr Natasha Richards, this presents grave problems.

“Sometimes bodies may come initially frozen and will have to be rescheduled, and if these bodies are from out of Kingston, say, even from Trelawny, ... they are [eventually] put back in the fridge and then rescheduled for another day.

“When the body comes for autopsy, it is no longer as fresh as it was the first time. It may even be a little decomposed, and when the tissues are less fresh, it’s a little more difficult to find the disease if it’s present or to interpret all of the injuries,” Richards said.

She, however, hastened to point out that despite the limitations, their postmortem reports are still very reliable.

“Even at that point, they are still quite reliable ‘cause there are artefacts that we can account for and describe around to still say, okay, there is this much other evidence of injury to still prove the thing that is being discussed regarding the body,” Richards said.

Consultation is under way for the design and construction of a forensic autopsy suite, Neblett said.

“It will cut down on travelling and it will help with the infrastructure. Also, we will have a unit where offices and the autopsy unit are in the same building so you can be more efficient in your time. If you finish your autopsy list for the day, you can still go do some reports,” Neblett said.

“You have your other staff there, so if you have a difficult case, if you have an interesting case, you can show your colleagues. It would also be a facility to help with teaching. So we are designing a viewing autopsy room so we can have members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, medical students … . Right now, how it is, they are literally in the morgue with you, which is not ideal,” she added.

nickoy.wilson@gleanerjm.com