The speed of an autopsy can sometime mean the difference between a family having an open or closed casket, and in Beaufort county autopsies tend to take a week or more.
But that will be changing soon.
The Beaufort County Council has allocated $438,400 as part of the 2023 budget to create a Pathology Department that can perform autopsies in Beaufort County, beginning in early August.
Currently, autopsies are done at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Because of travel time, the large number of autopsies scheduled at MUSC and a shortage of forensic pathologists, autopsies can take up to eight days.
What’s more, getting autopsy reports back to the family of the decedent takes an average of eight weeks.
“Medical University of South Carolina can get very backlogged and we can have a death and sometimes it has been as much as six days or so before we can get him in there,” Beaufort County Coroner David Ott said.
Any case with an undetermined death needs an autopsy. That can include homicides, suicides, accidental and natural deaths. Last year, the county ordered 191 autopsies from MUSC.
The addition of a pathology department locally will mean that autopsies will have results in 48 hours, according to a Beaufort County press release.
Ott hopes that with a forensic pathologist on staff, the timeline for families to receive results will be shortened to a week or two.
Forensic pathologist, also known as medical examiners, are trained physicians who perform autopsies.
Along with getting answers to families sooner, having a county pathologist will allow for police investigators to know both cause and time of death sooner, which will better inform their investigations.
“You really need those answers as soon as you can get them,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
Last year, Beaufort County spent $286,825 on autopsies, with $42,525 of that for transportation to MUSC.
The $438,400 that will go to the coroner’s office will be made up of a $275,000 salary for the forensic pathologist, a $70,000 salary for an assistant pathologist, and $88,400 for initial start-up costs.
Part of the start cost is equipping the coroner’s autopsy suite. The coroner’s office has had an autopsy suite since it relocated in 2014, but no autopsies have been performed there.
While taxpayers will save money by no longer paying for transportation fees, overall it will cost more to perform these services locally. However, surrounding counties could pay to use the autopsy suite in Beaufort County instead of MUSC, which will negate some of the higher costs, county spokesman Chris Ophardt said.
There is a shortage of forensic pathologists in South Carolina, according to Charleston County Coroner Bobby Jo O’Neal.
The shortage can be blamed on several factors: Many pathologists are retiring, fewer medical students are going into the field because of lower compensation compared with other medical fields, and a lack of interest in working with the deceased, according to O’Neal.
“Most folks who go to medical school are wanting to treat people,” said O’Neal.