'U' pathologists to partner with Wayne County morgue

By Claire Hall, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 23, 2011

Due to a shortage of pathologists in Detroit, the University has stepped in to help balance Wayne County morgue’s burgeoning caseload.

The University of Michigan Health System and the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office finalized a three-year partnership last week making WCMEO’s forensic pathologists — the doctors who conduct autopsies — employees of the University.

Wayne County, which has suffered budget cuts in recent years, required more pathologists to conduct about 2,500 autopsies that come through the morgue annually, according to WCMEO spokesman Dennis Niemiec. The WCMEO currently has five forensic pathologists, but the office needs a total of eight doctors, according to Niemiec.

“It was becoming difficult to recruit them because nationally there’s a shortage of forensic pathologists,” he said.

However, UMHS can assist in the recruitment process. The University has the ability to draw top-level candidates with name recognition and higher salaries, Niemiec said. He added that the University can pay pathologists up to $160,000 a year to start, whereas Wayne County previously paid closer to $120,000.

Dr. Jeffrey Myers, a University Medical School professor and director of the University’s anatomic pathology division, said the partnership benefits both parties.

The University currently has a similar partnership with Washtenaw County’s Medical Examiner’s office, but the county’s small size doesn’t generate a sufficient number of cases to attract fellows to the University’s forensic pathology program, according to Myers. The collaboration with the larger Wayne County morgue will change that, he said.

Myers added that combining the WCMEO and University staffs will form a “core faculty of nine forensic pathologists,” which he described as a “huge asset” to the University. He also pointed out that University students will benefit directly from the partnership.

“Our medical students and residents in pathology will have opportunities to access materials at Wayne County,” Myers said.

The partnership will also save at least $1.5 million over three years for Wayne County, according to a UMHS press release issued yesterday. The press release pointed to the partnership’s use of shared resources and staffing, as well as economics of scale, as sources of cost reduction.

Niemiec noted that forensic pathologists are the only WCMEO employees who will be brought on the University’s payroll.

The WCMEO hopes the expanded pathology staff, and expected reduction in case volume will help the office regain the accreditation it lost from the National Association of Medical Examiners in 1979, Niemiec said. The accreditation will aid the morgue in attracting a larger number of forensic pathologists and employees, he added.

“We anticipate getting accreditation within a year or a year and a half, and that is one of the benefits (of the partnership),” Niemiec said.

Though similar arrangements between morgues and universities exist in other states, Niemiec said Detroit’s morgue is the busiest nationwide. In that way, he said, it’s a “precedent-setting deal.”

After the contract’s three-year period is up, there are two one-year options available to renew it, according to Niemiec.

“We think this is a very long-term solution,” Niemiec said.