Body scandals put off medics

October 18, 2002

Medical students are being deterred from choosing a career in forensic pathology by the scandals arising from the illicit retention of children's organs in Bristol and Alder Hey and the closure of academic departments of forensic medicine, Northern Ireland's state pathologist has warned.

This poses a huge threat to the future of academic forensic pathology and, consequently, to murder detection, said Jack Crane, a Queen's University professor and a member of the Heads of UK Departments of Academic Forensic Pathology.

Professor Crane, who gave evidence at the inquest into the Omagh bombings and has been the subject of a television documentary, Probable Cause , has written to the Home Office requesting a meeting to spell out the consequences of the failure to maintain academic forensic pathology.

There are only two chairs of forensic medicine in England, both in Sheffield. Cardiff has the only other academic department. London has no single academic unit for the specialism. The number of full-time forensic pathologists has dwindled to 35 at a time when the number of murders is increasing.

Professor Crane reports a decrease in the number of students showing an interest in pathology and paediatric pathology in particular.

"This fall-off can be traced to the public rancour aroused by problems related to autopsies in children. The whole UK has been affected," he said.

Even recruitment at Queen's, where expertise in the pathology of terrorist violence is gained, has been affected by the scandals.

Professor Crane said: "Universities were essentially supporting these departments with little assistance from the Home Office. In the end they decided it was not their job to subsidise the investigation of murder."

An influx of independent forensic pathologists was no substitute for the defunct departments, he said. "While they do the job, they do not train people."

Professor Crane said the only way to make pathology more attractive to undergraduates was to set up centres of excellence in university departments, supported by the Home Office.

Examples already exist in Belfast, where the Northern Ireland Office maintains the academic department at Queen's, just as in Scotland the Crown Office funds the main university departments.

Concern about standards in forensic pathology that has emerged during high-profile cases is seen as another reason why the discipline should be left in academic departments.

"If you don't have people working together, it's more difficult to maintain high standards. Academics tend to promote research - which individuals working on their own can't do."

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