Public Safety

Medical Examiner Team Recognized For Teaching

Performing an autopsy can make even doctors squeamish. Yet resident physicians training to become pathologists need to perform at least 50 autopsies to qualify for their general pathology board examination.

To get this important training, UCSD School of Medicine pathology residents complete a six-week rotation at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, learning from the experienced County doctors.

Few working pathologists actually specialize in autopsies and forensic pathology; most work in laboratories and hospitals examining the tissues and cells of live patients.

Yet despite the initially “disturbing” subject, as one of this year’s residents called it, these students ultimately selected the Medical Examiner’s (ME) team to receive the UCSD School of Medicine Anatomic Pathology Teacher of the Year Award for 2011-2012.

“We were really honored to be recognized. The whole office was recognized, which means that the things we’re doing here have a real positive effect on them,” said Dr. Jonathon Lucas, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner, who helps oversee the residents. “We’re getting good feedback from people who most likely wouldn’t go into this field.”

The students are part of the Pathology Residency Training Program, which rotates the doctors through the various specialties within the pathology field including forensic pathology. Doctors usually choose their specialty after their residency is completed and do a year-long fellowship in their chosen concentration.

“This rotation is very important to the training program,” said David Li, who recently took part in the program. “The forensic pathologists at the ME love to teach and are very good because they’re passionate about what they do. The folks at the ME office will take extra time in teaching us things we need to know for the boards (examination), as well as interesting cases.”

Li acknowledged that the forensic pathology specialty probably has the least number of doctors interested in it, but not because it is unimportant. Autopsies are essential in order to determine the cause and manner of death of a person, and evaluate any disease or injury.

“For me it’s scientifically interesting now, but I would agree that in the beginning it can be a bit disturbing – but you get over that pretty quickly,” Li said. “I especially appreciated the type of cases that we don’t see at the hospital, like gunshots, homicides, suicides, or accidents. I learned about the approach to these cases, the details that you have to pay attention to that can turn a case from one type to another.”

Teaching is a core function of the Medical Examiner’s Office. Dr. Lucas notes that learning about forensic pathology is important even for those who may not choose it as a specialty because it gives doctors a set of skills and base of knowledge they may use in their future work.

“Education is so critical to the ME’s function and critical to the training of future physicians,” said Lucas. “We do spend a lot of time teaching these residents how to do the work, and we make sure they understand the basic principles of forensic pathology, like how to tell an exit from an entrance wound, and understand some of the issues behind death investigations.”

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact