Friday, May 16, 2014

Untrained medical examiners fail families, imperil justice


Anyone who has enrolled in school or applied for a passport knows the value of a birth certificate.

This is a special series of stories tied to the piece of paper at the other end of life -- your death certificate.

No, you won’t need the certificate, but trust me, it will be very important to the people you leave behind.

That’s because death certificates do more than just certify your death. They also explain what took your life.

The stated cause of death affects the ability of loved ones to collect on insurance, hold others liable for your death if warranted, and ultimately come to some peace of mind about what killed you.

And that’s just about you. Compiled and studied as vital statistics, death certificates reveal public health threats ranging from disease to environmental hazards.

But none of this works unless the facts are right. And as you will learn from this five-part series, titled "Fatally Flawed," that’s a big problem in North Carolina.

Our team of reporters documented many troubles. But the bottom line is this: Our state stands out nationally for trying to investigate unexplained deaths on the cheap.

Each year about 75,000 North Carolinians die. A medical examiner is called in to investigate about 10,000 of those deaths because the circumstances are suspicious, violent, accidental or unattended.

That’s where the trouble begins. The state requires no training for its medical examiners. And it pays them a paltry $100 per case. As a result, many deaths get little attention.

The effects on surviving loved ones can be devastating. We found case after case of grieving relatives forced to launch their own inquiries into how a family member died. Forget all you’ve seen on CSI. These circumstances were DIY (do it yourself).

The disgrace to our state doesn’t stop there. We found an eastern N.C. county conducting an earnest campaign to fight heart disease. Its inspiration: state statistics suggesting that residents were up to 10 times more at risk of dying of a heart ailment. Experts say it’s more likely that the county’s medical examiners simply chose heart disease as a catch-all explanation in processing death certificates.

While all of this may surprise you, there are people in Raleigh who have been in the know for a long time.

Our Legislature was first warned about problems with the medical examiner system 13 years ago, through another Observer series called “Grave Secrets.” Those stories triggered a 2001 commission that recommended improvements. A handful of suggestions were adopted, but many others were ignored.

Now, a new team of Observer journalists has burrowed into the system. They examined more than 130,000 deaths investigated by medical examiners since 2001. Their work is the most comprehensive analysis of state death rulings ever conducted.

And while matters have only grown worse, it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ll show you how another state helps families get to the truth about causes of death, bringing them the closure they desperately need.

I hope you’ll read the entire series and support something better for North Carolina. Both you and your descendants deserve it.

An autopsy suite in Raleigh at the Medical Examiner's labs.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to ethics? Why do shortcuts always have to be taken?

Carolina said...

Nobody wants to pay taxes, right?

Carolina said...

Nobody wants to pay taxes, so...

Anonymous said...

what makes the Charlotte Observer objective? What medical or legal background to their reporters have that would give them the ability to interpret the information they claim to have found in their "burrowing"? Why not lay this out in a more objective way? The opening sounds like something off of Fox News or MSNBC. We have gotten so far away from reporting news and into scandals. Just investigate and put information out there, don't moralize for us all Observer.

Anonymous said...

Explain these statistics on body viewings. You have William Oliver listed last and listed for "Orange County". Dr. Oliver works for ECU school of medicine and does autopsies throughout eastern NC. Please make this make sense for us.

Rick Thames said...

Anonymous 10:50 a.m.: Thanks for the question. When a local medical examiner cannot be reached, the county sometimes sends the body to a pathologist who acts as the medical examiner. Usually the body is sent to the state medical examiner's office in Raleigh but, in some cases, it is sent to ECU, Mecklenburg County or Wake Forest.

In this case, Dr. Oliver is listed as a medical examiner for a case in Orange County.
You'll see that Dr. Radisch - the state's chief medical examiner - has served a medical examiner for cases in Franklin, Pitt, Warren, Mecklenburg, Vance and Orange.
Hope this helps answer your question.

Cindy Warren said...

Anonymous:
To some of this it is important news. I guess until you had it hit close to home (such as myself) you cannot appreciate the impact that exposing the truth and yes morality does play a factor in this. I guarantee that if it was one of their loved ones, they would be much more thorough with their investigation. If you have morals, you would treat each body how you would treat your own family. And that is definitely not been the case. The Observer's job is to tell it like it is and sadly enough they are.......