Low autopsy rate in B.C. alarms experts
Too many deaths inadequately investigated, former coroners say
British Columbia has the lowest autopsy rate in Canada, raising concern among some experts that too many deaths in the province — and even possible homicides — are inadequately investigated.
Just 19.2 percent of deaths in B.C. where a medical examiner or coroner has done a preliminary investigation are followed up by autopsies.
The average rate in the rest of Canada is about 35 per cent.
Autopsy rates in Canada
2012 – 19.2%.
2010 – 25.5%.
2006 – 30%.
2012 – 39.8%.
2012 – 36.3%.
2012 – 33%.
2011 – 36.3%.
2010 – 37.2%.
2010 – 42%.
2012 – 34%.
2012 – 43%.
"[A] 19-per-cent autopsy rate in a coroner service, I think, is appallingly low," said Dr. Robert Crossland, a former coroner in B.C. "It should be much, much higher.
"There’s something wrong here. Is it because we don’t have the money?"
The B.C. Coroners Service budget has been cut to $11.7 million this year from $12.1 million last year.
CBC News has spoken to two B.C. families who believe the deaths of their loved ones were not sufficiently investigated, and in one case, a homicide might have been overlooked.
John Morrison doesn't believe his brother — Dr. Roger Morrison, of Revelstoke, B.C., a family physician and avid body builder — could have taken his own life in November, as police and a coroner concluded.
"My brother had severed both his main arteries in each arm and his wrists were severed and he had a series of lateral cuts across his chest," John Morrison said.
The man’s body was found in what police first treated as a bloody crime scene in his upscale home.
A local coroner wanted to do a full autopsy, but was overruled by senior officials in the coroners service.
A Revelstoke funeral director who saw the death scene also thinks an error was made.
Coroners in Canada
- In B.C., Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick, coroners are lay people.
- In Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island all coroners are, by law, physicians.
"Nothing was standard [about the scene]," said Gary Sulz. "I would have like to have seen the autopsy completed."
Another former B.C. coroner, Kathleen Stephany, also said the service is not doing its job.
"This could be a homicide, and we will never know if there's been no autopsy," Stephany said.
A coroner also declined to perform an autopsy investigating the death of Rhonda Bergen, who died six weeks after starting a prescription for the controversial birth control pill Yasmin.
The family paid $1,200 for a private autopsy, which concluded Bergen had died from blood clots in her lungs and that the birth control pill and morbid obesity were risk factors for such clots.
Change in mandate
Critics say a change in mandate in 2007 reduced the number of autopsies.
B.C. Coroners Service spokeswoman Barb McLintock acknowledged to CBC News that budget cuts have affected the choices coroners are making.
B.C. Coroners Service budget
- 2008-09: $17.3 million.
- 2009-10: $15.7 million.
- 2010-11: $13.2 million.
- 2011-12: $12.1 million.
- 2012-13: $11.8 million.
"Everybody in the provincial government is trying to find every dollar they can, so we're applying our autopsy policy more carefully, maybe a bit more rigidly than we have in the past," McLintock said.
McLintock also released a statement late Tuesday from B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe in response to inquiries from CBC News.
Lapointe said she could not comment on specific cases, but said decisions on autopsies are made collaboratively.
"The decision is made by the coroner and regional coroner after objectively examining all information available including that provided by the police investigators. Both police and the coroner make decisions based on their knowledge, experience and expertise in the investigation of death and scenes of death," the statement said.
With files from the CBC's Natalie Clancy