Bereaved will be spared autopsy anguish

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am

Bereaved families in inquests would soon be spared the painful process of going to hospitals to collect medical information on the deceased and passing it to government pathologists, a retired coroner has said.

Peter White, who left the judiciary last week after serving for two decades as a magistrate and the past three years as a coroner, said the change, by allowing for more direct communication between doctors and pathologists, could cut the number of cases requiring an autopsy.

'I had to deal with a lot of applications for waivers of autopsy by grief-stricken families. That was the most difficult part of my job,' said Mr White, who is behind the change.

Under the existing system, families have to go to various hospitals to collect the medical history of the dead so they can pass the information to government pathologists.

The pathologists then assess the information and decide whether an autopsy is needed to establish the likely cause of death.

'But family members were sometimes too stressed to carry out the work. You have to understand that they are going through a very difficult process,' Mr White said.

Under an agreement reached this month between the judiciary and the Hospital Authority, the pathologists would be able to communicate directly with doctors, without the involvement of families.

'What we are doing is to try to ensure that doctors get all available information to help pathologists make a decision,' he said.

'We want to identify those cases closely so that we don't order autopsies in cases where it is not absolutely necessary.'

He expected the change would be introduced over the next few months.

Mr White, who left his post to join his family in Melbourne, said the next change he would like to see was counsellors to help people go through the grieving process and explain their rights to them, a practice common to many jurisdictions, including Australia.

'I often had to deal with people who are really obsessed with the loss of a loved one and they have never been able to get over it. The obsession grows and grows, leading to quite a lot of illness,' Mr white said.

In some cases, parents who lost a child suffered a marriage breakdown.

He called for the training of grief counsellors who could also act as a bridge between hospitals and surviving relatives, who tended to be suspicious about what doctors said.

'Ideally, grief counsellors can be placed in mortuaries, with psychologists and trained nurses,' he said.

Mr White said that despite the nature of his work, he was a person who remained positive and focused, and was never overwhelmed by sadness.

'Very often, families came with no real idea of how they were going to survive without the support of the breadwinner,' he said.

'But they left the court knowing that the cause of death had been established, that they did have rights and that they knew how to pursue those rights. The job has been satisfying.'