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Pathologist looks to resuscitate state's Oklahoma medical examiner's office

Two years into his new gig as Oklahoma chief medical examiner, Dr. Eric Pfeifer said he's made all the fixes he can make without gaining a new building.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: March 31, 2013

The pieces are in place for an improved medical examiner's office in Oklahoma — now supporters say it's time for the Legislature to act.

Two years after a new chief was hired and a year after the agency gained $2.5 million in supplemental appropriations, forensic investigators and pathologists say they are still overworked and behind on finalizing cases.

But with the roster of doctors expected to double over the next few months, all that's really needed for the agency to regain accreditation is a new facility, said Dr. Eric Pfeifer, chief medical examiner.

“By October of this year they'll all be in place so I think you'll really start seeing some change in workload distribution and turnaround time decrease,” he said. “Until then we're still limping along with three pathologists.”

It's no secret that the state office charged with investigating suspicious deaths has been embroiled in turmoil since at least 2007.

A revolving door of chief examiners, the loss of national accreditation in 2009, repeated allegations of sexual harassment and a monumental backlog of unresolved investigations made it easy for lawmakers to reject repeatedly the agency's bid for a new facility. But now lawmakers, agency heads and even office employees say a culture change under Pfeifer's leadership — plus a little financial boost — have made a world of difference.

“We could not have asked for a better medical examiner,” said Charles Curtis, deputy director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which often relies on medical examiner reports in determining whether a crime was committed. “He had a plan when he came in, he developed one, and he's pretty well stuck with that plan.”

“He's not a hack that came in with an agenda — he's a responsible doctor who's trying to come in and practice medicine in pathology,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. “He's focused, and I think he's intent on trying to do his job.”

Dr. Chai Choi, a pathologist at the agency's Oklahoma City office since 1983, said Pfeifer is the best chief she has had.

“We are very fortunate,” she said. “He is young, he is outgoing and very passionate about it.”

Attacking the backlog

The first thing Pfeifer did when he took over as administrator was change its employee culture. Though it meant the firing of three Tulsa employees — including one prominent pathologist who had previously worked as its acting chief — employees said today say they are happier and feel more support than ever.

The second thing he did was attack the backlog of unresolved cases.

When Pfeifer started in May 2011, there were 320 cases of autopsy reports that had been pending for more than two months. By January of the following year, that backlog had been wiped out to zero.

That was a strenuous task, he said, and he may have asked too much of his employees. Now, that backlog has grown to over 600, including 31 that have been pending for more than a year.

“Their family lives suffered, their personal lives suffered, and that was not the way to go,” he said. “I had docs say to me, ‘I can't take the pace, I'm going to leave,' or, ‘My wife is about to divorce me because I'm spending too much time here,' and so I said, ‘OK, this was too ambitious for what we could do.'”

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