Greene County likely to turn to MU for forensic services

Saturday, September 6, 2008 | 6:09 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — After a 23-month search that has not landed a medical examiner, Greene County officials are considering asking MU to help provide forensic pathology services.

The county hasn't signed a contract with the university yet but probably will have a deal within two to three weeks, said Greene County Presiding Commissioner Dave Coonrod.

At the same time, commissioners want to speed up construction of a county morgue.

Currently, the county contracts with Springfield Mortuary for the storage and transportation of bodies and conducts most autopsies at Cox South hospital. The single autopsy table at CoxHealth is shared with the hospital pathologist and a private pathology group. And because of the hospital setting, autopsies of burned or decomposed bodies must be done elsewhere.

"Although we are indebted to CoxHealth for the service they've done us by letting us use their facility, it's not what the medical examiners today expect," said Associate Commissioner Harold Bengsch.

At least two of the candidates interviewed for the medical examiner's job turned it down because of a lack of facilities, which convinced the commission it needs to budget for the morgue in 2009, Coonrod said.

Springfield pathologist Dr. Doug Anderson has been interim medical examiner since Medical Examiner Dr. Paul Spence resigned abruptly in October 2006.

"Dr. Anderson has done much more than we should ask," Coonrod said of Anderson, who has his own practice and has been in the "temporary" job for almost two years.

The job has also been hard to fill because of a small pool of qualified replacements. Medical examiners must be licensed physicians who also are board-certified forensic pathologists.

"We're told there are only 350 to 400 forensic pathologists in the country," Coonrod said.

The commission has been offering a salary of $130,000 to $140,000, but many medical examiners make a quarter-million dollars right out of school, Coonrod said.

Contracting with Missouri won't save much money, Coonrod said, but it would save the commission from trying to recruit its own medical examiner.

MU's Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences already provides forensic pathology services to several counties in the Columbia area.

The university doesn't expect as many problems attracting new staff because being able to teach and be involved in the university's resident medical program is attractive to many candidates, said Bud Smith, department administrator for Missouri's Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences.

Missouri already has two medical examiners on staff and is advertising for a third. Smith said a fourth could be added if the deal with Greene County is completed.

The university provides medical examiner services to Boone, Callaway and Pettis counties, Smith said, and conducts autopsies on an as-needed basis for coroners in 37 other counties.

"We do, ballpark, probably 430 autopsies a year right now, total," he said.

The university conducts all autopsies at its morgue in Columbia, but it's unclear where Greene County autopsies would be done.

"I think their goal ultimately is to try to bring a medical examiner on board who would live down here," Coonrod said.

But even in the best case, Coonrod said, a new morgue is at least 18 months away.



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