Autopsies delayed, families waiting for answers due to forensic pathologist shortage

Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 9:15 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Families have been left waiting for answers as coroners and medical examiners across the state are being pushed to the brink.

Statewide, many offices are handling a record number of cases.

19 Investigates found many autopsies continue to be delayed due to a forensic pathologist shortage.

We first brought you the story earlier this year.

In Stark County, a new office designed by the coroner and his staff has been sitting empty.

It’s been more than two years since they had a forensic pathologist.

19 Investigates first reported in April that they are not performing autopsies in house anymore.

Some bodies have to be sent to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office for more thorough investigations.

Stark County Coroner Dr. Ron Rusnak said they continue to perform scene investigations, external examinations and toxicology studies.

They can also rule out accidents and homicides.

“We’re not cutting corners, so those cases and again, those are the homicides, you know, the babies, the pediatrics, the young deaths, the industrial accidents where you know, we need a full investigation and those cases to make sure that if there’s a public health or a job safety issue or something like that, those are getting addressed,” Dr. Rusnak said in April.

Now, more than six months later, we found they’ve received no applications for the open forensic pathologist job.

But their office has still been busy.

From January 1 to June 30 of this year, Dr. Rusnak told us they ruled 13 homicides.

Last year they hit a record, handling nearly 700 cases.

Most cases that came into their office were natural deaths.

But they also dealt with overdoses, suicides and homicides.

Since they are not performing ocal autopsies, it can cost families time, peace of mind and even money.

It’s taking up to six months to get answers for many families in Stark County.

If they could do autopsies in house with a forensic pathologist, it would take around one to two months.

“You know, it’s a national problem, not just Stark County’s problem. And there’s so much competition,” Dr. Rusnak said.

A major shortage of forensic pathologists is now being called a crisis.

Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County Medical Examiner, told 19 Investigates they have one open position and three pathologists on staff right now.

She said they’ve improved the compensation plan to bring salaries up to around the midpoint nationwide.

They’re also offering tuition reimbursement of $10,000 a year for 10 years.

This is all in hopes of improving both retention and recruitment.

Salaries of forensic pathologists often range between $200-$300,000 a year.

We found in Ohio, only 10 of our 88 counties have a forensic pathologist.

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office is performing many autopsies for smaller coroner’s offices.

But they’ve lost several forensic pathologists themselves.

They have four openings and one of those spots is a new position.