Wayne County morgue receives national recognition

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 9:36am

Due to a successful partnership between the University of Michigan Medical School and Wayne County, the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office was recently granted accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners. This distinction, given for exceptional operations in investigating deaths and conducting postmortem examinations, is one the county has not received in the last 40 years. 

Jeffrey Jentzen, director of autopsy and forensic services at the Department of Pathology, said the partnership began in 2011 and was spearheaded by faculty members from the department to assist Wayne County in a time of financial struggle. Jentzen added that the partnership also aimed to ensure quality forensic pathology. Under a county contract, the University Medical School — which also collaborates with the Washtenaw County Medical Examiner’s Office — runs and supplies faculty for the Wayne County office.

In 2014, in addition to providing toxicology and histology services, the contract was extended to include all of the Department of Pathology staff, including administration, photographers, autopsy assistants and death investigators. Leigh Hlavaty, Wayne County deputy chief medical examiner and assistant professor of pathology at the University, said the extension of the contract helped greatly with receiving the accreditation. 

“Having the resources of the University of Michigan and the support of Wayne County was the only way that we were able to achieve (accreditation) at this point,” Hlavaty said. 

In order to be qualified for accreditation, the morgue must reach many requirements and pass multiple evaluations and inspections. Medical examiner’s offices must comply with a set of performance and safety standards, complete the necessary upkeep of written policies, and maintain guidelines regarding scene investigations and identification, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners website.

“The accreditation demonstrates to the citizens and the governmental agencies that the office is performing at a high level and their practices are conforming with national standards,” Jentzen said. “This accreditation goes a long way to solidify the credibility of the office and also the credibility of the trainees and the professional staff.” 

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office — which performs more than 3,000 annual examinations — is one of 87 offices nationwide that have received this accreditation, indicating that recipients are excelling in their work.

“The accreditation implies that there’s correct staffing levels, there’s correct safety measures that are used, as well as policies and procedures are in accordance with national standards,” Jentzen added.

Hlavaty said the county is also one of only 27 nationwide coroner’s offices with a training program that received the accreditation.

“The accreditation means a lot to me personally,” Hlavaty said. “There was years of efforts on behalf of my staff and so therefore to see the results come to fruition, and it made all of their efforts worthwhile. Overall for the office, what it means is that we are compliant with national standards and therefore our work is being held up to the highest ideal and scrutiny by our peers.”

Jentzen said the partnership has been beneficial to both Wayne County and the University, as it has extensively expanded since its introduction and has been successful in improving the Medical Examiner’s Office and increasing the available hands-on opportunities for students, trainees and interns. The Medical School aims to expose students not only to service opportunities with the contract, like providing autopsy service, but also to improve educational opportunities and extend forensic science research.

“We now have one of the top training programs in forensic medicine,” Jentzen said. “In addition to assisting Wayne County and providing quality service to their citizens, we can provide an educational opportunity for our residents and staff, and, since 2011, we have, in my opinion, made major contributions to the field of forensic medicine by our presentations in national meetings and the collaboration between our staff.”

While there are similar partnerships nationwide, such as at the University of Iowa and the University of New Mexico, Jentzen said the University's program is unique in that trainees are given the opportunity to explore both Wayne County-based forensic medicine and community-oriented medicine in Washtenaw County.

Ultimately, Jentzen said he believes the partnership has been a success and has played a role in encouraging the Department of Pathology to continue expanding their knowledge about forensic medicine. With the accreditation, which is valid for five years, Jentzen hopes students and faculty continue to take advantage of the many opportunities made available through this partnership.

“We are certainly hoping that this partnership continues, and that we can further expand on the teaching and educational opportunities that are available here,” Hlavaty said.