RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – On every front, North Carolina battles a growing opioid epidemic.
“No one – no one here, no one nationwide predicted what’s happening now with the opioid crisis,” explained Dr. Deborah Radisch, North Carolina’s chief medical examiner.
Addiction and overdoses have taxed emergency room doctors, police officers, and now medical examiners.
“In September, 384 autopsies were done for the medical examiner’s system throughout the state and 63 percent of those, over half of those, were done to rule out an overdose,” she detailed.
The pathologist tells CBS North Carolina’s Beairshelle Edmé those numbers should alarm residents.
Each autopsy costs taxpayers $2,800.
In most circumstances, the county pays 63 percent of the cost and the state covers the rest.
If projections are right about the opioid crisis, North Carolina taxpayers could keep footing this bill for quite some time.
“We did 184 autopsies just in this office in August,” the highest ever conducted in one month, according to Radisch.
If divided equally among the eight forensic pathologists at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office that’s 23 autopsies each.
The standard set by the National Association of Medical Examiners calls for a maximum of 250 autopsies in a year per pathologist, which could breaks down to 20 a month.
That contrast in numbers and the increased overdoses are the reason Radisch, who’s led this office for 7 years, grows more concerned.
Asked if the opioid epidemic has become a burden on her office, she answered, “It has and of course. It is a burden in a way and it’s frustrating to have to work on new cases, but feel the tension of not having the time that day, say, to complete old case and not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow and the day after.”
Her team at the central office covers 31 counties and struggles with a decreased turnaround time.
On a fully staffed day, she noted they can complete 12 autopsies, but sometimes 25 to 30 new cases come in one day, many being overdoses.
The consequence is that previous cases get delayed.
“We’re not in the office sitting there and completing cases that were done 1 or 2 or 3 months before,” the doctor explained.
Without the completed autopsy report, families can’t handle the final affairs of their loved ones, including collecting insurance and closing out financial accounts.
This reality weighs heavy on the chief medical examiner.
“We just, we have to look every day at our resources and maximize them the best way we can,” she said to Edmé.
Her burden goes beyond the day-to-day.
“My greatest concern is the professional workforce,” Radisch added. “We’re already in a shortage situation and now with the opioid crisis, less pathologists are having to do more autopsies.”
Only 1 percent of new doctors plan to become pathologists, according to a July 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
NAME found that less than 1 percent of those physicians get certified, even less will practice, an issue that most recently the Justice Department hoped to address.
For North Carolina, Radisch believes the pathologist shortage could mean combating more than one crisis, especially as the Triangle’s population grows every day giving way to even more overdoses.