Thursday, July 23, 2009

Texas Tech will stop performing autopsies

Dozens of West Texas counties face a transition and possible vacuum regarding who will provide autopsy services for the region, with the Texas Tech Health Science Center backing out of the arrangement, according to a report in the Abilene Reporter-News ("Texas Tech to stop performing autopsies, July 22"). Lubbock County, at the end of the day, may wind up providing those services, but they're having trouble recruiting enough doctors to perform the task:

More than 80 counties have received a letter that Texas Tech University Medical Center will be getting out of the autopsy business by August 31, which means several counties throughout the Big Country will have to seek other providers.

The medical school is doing out of county autopsies until Sept. 1. Lubbock County officials say they are not prepared to take on all out-of-county autopsies just yet because more doctors must be hired.

“I sent out the letter and it was our intention to be able to pick up all of the out-of-county autopsies by Sept. 1,“ said Lubbock County Judge Tom Head. “But we have not had success in recruiting the doctors we need to provide the service.”

Head said three to four more doctors must be hired to handle the volume from out-of-county autopsies. ...

When UMC was handling all of the autopsies, between 750 and 900 were performed annually, including those for Lubbock County.

It's hard enough to draw doctors to West Texas to treat people, much less to perform autopsies, so it's no small dilemma if Lubbock can't find enough medical examiners to perform these tasks. In the meantime, some counties will have to use facilities in Dallas and Fort Worth or contract out to private labs.

At the tail end of the article, we get a little more backstory about why Texas Tech won't be performing autopsies anymore:

A Central Texas document investigator challenged the legality of the UMC office last spring.

State law describes medical examiners as licensed physicians employed by a county, but the office is not included in the Lubbock County budget. All counties needing forensic services contracted with Tech, rather than the county. Tech and county attorneys said the arrangement followed state law.

Health Sciences Center officials described the program last summer as an important chance to recruit and train rare specialists for high-quality work, but announced in early August that Tech would no longer handle the program.

Who was this mysterious "Central Texas document investigator," one wonders (and where can I get one of those "document investigator" jobs?). I'm surprised the Legislature wasn't asked to authorize the arrangement during the recent session; I doubt it would have been controversial.

In any event, maintaining sufficient capacity for high-quality, on-demand forensic services in sparsely populated areas is no easy task, and as evidenced by this example, it's not always clear exactly whose responsibility it is.

MORE: On the "mysterious document investigator," from a knowledgeable reader via email:

I'm fairly certain that the mysterious "Central Texas document investigator" is a guy named David Fisher, a professional expert witness who's made a specialty out of tearing apart autopsies for defense attorneys in murder cases -- usually by going after the qualifications of staff at the medical examiner's office. ...

From what I can tell, his underlying message is that the medical examiner's system in Texas is corrupted beyond belief and is too closely allied with the law enforcement community. Medical examiners are too poorly trained, too willing to go with whatever conclusions support the investigations of law enforcement, and too often left to operate with no one watching over them.

In addition to the stuff in Lubbock, he got the medical examiner in Hidalgo county booted a few years back because the guy didn't actually have a license. He's also made waves in the Bexar County and Travis County MEOs lately if I'm remembering correctly.


Anonymous said...

Tech had to get out of the autopsy bidness so it would have the money to hire Alberto Gonzales to teach and recruit minorities.


ckikerintulia said...

Are you serious, Plato? Is Alberto Gonzales really and truly going to teach at Tech? Charles from Tulia

Socrates said...

He's going to teach one class. To undergrads.

Anonymous said...

Sho 'nuff, Charlie. These R's take care of their own. D's leave their losers on the battlefield. Little wonder Treflan Tech ranks as a Tier III. But, we have T$O (The Strange One) for $2.5 million per year.

Your neighbor to the south.


Anonymous said...

See the Ft. Worth Weekly article "Dissecting the Evidence"

Anonymous said...

Can anyone please tell me how to get in touch with David Fisher. He could be of some help in 'dissecting' the strange autopsy report I rec'd on my son, who died a suspicious death! (Joshua Robinson) attached documents.