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Oklahoma ranks low in autopsies performed

About 3 percent of people who die in Oklahoma are autopsied, a number that falls below the national average. The state's new chief medical examiner said increased staff in 2013 will help boost that number.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Published: March 31, 2013
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/articleid/3778317/1/pictures/1998223">Photo - Joe and Donna Turner and Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes announce that the family is offering a $100,000 reward for leads in the case of the death of the Turner's daughter Chanda on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Pauls Valley, Okla.  At far right is under sheriff Jim Mullett.  Garvin County Sheriff's office has opened a homicide investigation after the medical examiners office changed the death certificate of the young woman killed over a decade ago in Pauls Valley.  Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman <strong>STEVE SISNEY - THE OKLAHOMAN</strong>
Joe and Donna Turner and Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes announce that the family is offering a $100,000 reward for leads in the case of the death of the Turner's daughter Chanda on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Pauls Valley, Okla. At far right is under sheriff Jim Mullett. Garvin County Sheriff's office has opened a homicide investigation after the medical examiners office changed the death certificate of the young woman killed over a decade ago in Pauls Valley. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman STEVE SISNEY - THE OKLAHOMAN

The state's chief investigator at the time told ProPublica a severe staffing shortage prohibits the medical examiner's office from autopsying possible suicides or alleged murder-suicides and often people aged 40 and older who die of unexplained causes.

That practice could lead to murderers walking free and important public health data going unreported, the organization reported.

In its 2007 analysis, Oklahoma ranked in the bottom five of the nation's busiest medical examiner's offices in terms of the rate of autopsies performed.

Dr. Eric Pfeifer, chief medical examiner, said his office simply does not have the staff to do more than it already does.

Five forensic pathologists were tasked with examining 22,000 cases in 2012 alone, Pfeifer told The Oklahoman last week. It was one of several reasons the office lost its accreditation in 2009.

“We're not even doing autopsies on cases we probably ought to be doing autopsies on,” he said. “We simply don't have the staff or the space to run that many cases through so we can't achieve the performance standards. We're really kind of at the max.”

Pfeifer said the addition of five new pathologists this year should help increase the number of autopsies performed.


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