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Editorial: Update, please

Dr. Matthew Bowes, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nova Scotia, (left) and Justice Minister Andrew Parsons are shown in August 2016 as Parsons releases the terms of reference for an external review of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner .
Dr. Matthew Bowes, Chief Medical Examiner for Nova Scotia, (left) and Justice Minister Andrew Parsons are shown in August 2016 as Parsons released the terms of reference for an external review of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. — Telegram file

 

It’s Nov. 10, some 143 days since Justice Minister Andrew Parsons released the results of an external review of the province’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).

At the time, the department described the process that would follow as “reviewing the recommendations to determine feasibility and timeline of implementation, as well as assess the cost considerations that will be associated with any changes that are needed.”

Let’s hope that change is coming soon.

The review came after a court case involving the death of an infant, Matthew Rich, was halted and a second-degree murder charge against his father dropped, because medical evidence, including Matthew’s brain, had been lost at the medical examiner’s office.

The review found, essentially, that the state of the OCME’s facilities was such that it was an accident waiting to happen.

“From time to time, any medicolegal morgue may encounter various kinds of hazardous or illegal substances, and holds evidence that may be critical to court proceedings, all of which were at risk of theft or tampering. The shortcomings of OCME security have been previously described in a threat assessment, so we will not belabour the point here, but we note that many of the recommendations in this report that were labelled ‘immediate’ have still not been acted upon.”

That threat assessment was done in February 2016.

The review notes a host of problems: the office space is inadequate — “Boxes of files, office supplies, journals and books are stored in every available space such that the people who work there encounter difficulty just moving through the space.”

The review recommends new space.

The review found, essentially, that the state of the OCME’s facilities was such that it was an accident waiting to happen.

There are too few staff: “Dr. (Simon) Avis’ current duties encompass the entire operation of the OCME: he is on call every day unless he can arrange coverage by Dr. (Nash) Denic, and remarkably, he is the first point of contact for all or nearly all deaths that occur when he is on call. This is a highly unusual feature… This practice has resulted in a very heavy and completely unsustainable workload for Dr. Avis.”

Avis is approaching retirement age, and there has been no effort to find a replacement. The sole autopsy technician is approaching retirement, as well, and the report says Denic wants to reduce his involvement at the OCME.

The report was blunt: “we do not view the status quo as an option.”

The office needs twice as many forensic pathologists, and they are hard to find. The report said this province could be left “vulnerable to a sudden and prolonged disruption in this critical service.”

The message is clear: dedicated people are working harder than they should in facilities so cramped that it affects their ability to do good work. Their record system is antiquated. The only reason forensic dentistry is available is because Avis took training himself.

Change is needed. The clock is ticking. Any news, Minister Parsons?

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