Increase in deaths, population causing delays in autopsies at MUSC

VIDEO: Increase in deaths, population causing delays in autopsies at MUSC

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Officials with MUSC say they are experiencing delays in completing autopsies for Charleston and other surrounding counties.

It’s been an escalating issue as the hospital’s team now works about 26 cases, on average, each week, and some local coroners have said they are feeling the burden of this delay as well.

“As little as two years ago, when we needed to have an autopsy done it may be the next morning or mid-morning and that’s when it would be scheduled. Now we are two and three days out," said Berkeley County Coroner George Oliver.

MUSC officials confirmed that is the case, and they blamed the delays on an increasing population across South Carolina and the opioid epidemic.

“We would prefer to perform autopsies within 1 to 2 days of notification, but sometimes the number of deaths requiring forensic examination may result in an additional day or two delay as the cases are processed,” said MUSC Dr. Susan Presnell said. “We are limited by the size of our facility in the wake of the increasing SC population and other external factors such as the opioid crisis.”

More deaths mean more autopsies are required, and MUSC doctors are asked to do autopsies by whichever coroner wants to send their cases to them.

“We certainly don’t want to take a guess on why we think somebody died," Oliver said. "We want to have that documented, and we want to give that piece of mind to the family as well. We don’t want them to be wondering.”

Oliver said January 2020 revealed an unprecedented number of deaths, a total of 147 fatalities.

According to Oliver, no month reached that level in 2019, and only three months surpassed 100 deaths in 2018. Oliver attributed the rise in deaths to an increasing population in Berkeley County.

Oliver said he noticed MUSC’s autopsy delays start near the middle of 2019. He said he was asked to hold onto some bodies in Berkeley County’s morgue instead of bringing them directly to MUSC.

“The morgue they have down there only holds a certain amount of people, and they are now doing autopsies for not just Berkeley County, Charleston and Dorchester, but a good majority of the state,” Oliver said.

The counties sending the most cases to MUSC right now include Beaufort, Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton, Sumter, Lexington, Florence, and Jasper Counties, according to Presnell.

Oliver said the delays can really impact families who are having to wait longer now to bury or even see their loved ones after they have passed away.

“By having that delay, that wait, the family is sitting on pins and needles not knowing why their loved one died," Oliver described. "It slows down the whole process and when you do that, it delays arrangements and things like that. They just can’t do anything until they get their loved one back.”

Coroners in South Carolina are not medical examiners, so they have to rely on hospitals like MUSC to determine a person’s cause of death. Autopsies are not performed for every death investigation, but they are especially necessary for any that appear suspicious.

Currently, MUSC schedules four autopsies per day, Presnell said.

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