The partnership between Bergen County and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School is a first of its kind in New Jersey. Rutgers faculty will lead the medical examiner office.
“That way we’ll be able to attract the best forensic pathologists in the country,” said Rutgers pathology department chair Chen Liu.
Students from the pathology program in turn will receive training at the medical examiner office as part of their residency.
“Being able to better understand and uncover the whole circumstance around that death can help bring closure to families while giving us the tools and knowledge to hopefully prevent future deaths,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco.
Tedesco says this partnership allows Bergen County to stay ahead of the medical examiner shortage the country faces.
“The difficulty is you have to be licensed in New Jersey. You have to understand New Jersey laws. And many of them, because of the pay inequities, I mean some of these people are demanding $400,000 or $500,000 a year and we’re just not able to pay that kind of money,” Tedesco said.
The lack of people entering the field is a national problem.
The shortage was highlighted in an NJ Advance Media investigation about a year ago. Journalists Stephen Stirling and S.P. Sullivan looked at medical examiner offices across the state and discovered a system that had been neglected for a number of years.
“There wasn’t really a cohesive system,” Stirling said. “Most of them were understaffed, and the caseloads they were taking on were too much for the staff to bear and it lead to really long waiting times. If you’re a family waiting on word of how your family died it can be really devastating. And we also uncovered several instances were a medical examiner may have gotten a ruling wrong.”
Stirling says many people they interviewed believed it was ideal to pair an medical examiner office with a university.
“One of the best ways that you can sort of guarantee that you will perhaps have people at least available to you and familiar with your system that are available to be employed is to partner with a local university program, and that’s what Bergen county has done here,” Stirling said.
Stirling says Bergen County met national criteria and most of the people they interviewed saw the county as a well-run medical examiner office.
“What we’ve been able to do here in Bergen County has continued to set us apart, and this is just another extension of that,” Tedesco said.
Tedesco believes this partnership with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School will be a model other counties in the state will soon follow.