Autopsy, Toxicology and Technology – Figuring Out What’s There

Not long ago, my partner wrote about the importance of an autopsy in many kinds of medical malpractice cases, but did you even wonder how medical examiners figure out just what kinds of substances might have caused or contributed to someone’s death?  Medical examiners often rely on the work of forensic toxicologists, people who examine bodily fluids and tissues to see what kind of substances were in a person’s body when he died.  It can take a long time to run forensic toxicology tests, generally 4-6 weeks, but they produce amazing results.  The time a substance entered the body, how much was left when the person died, how it reacted to other substances, and how it might have lead to someone’s death are all questions that can be answered by modern toxicology testing.

Now, special machines called liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer/mass spectromerers are becoming the new standard in forensic toxicology testing.  While the technology has been available for a while, it’s still not cheap, packing a hefty price of $200,000 – $300,000 for a single machine.  Compared to previous testing methods, however, the machines can much more efficiently and effectively identify just about any substance that could conceivably be found in the human body, even those that might be unexpected.  They are far more sensitive at detecting substances and can do so more accurately.  While these machines are now used primarily in law enforcement, look to see them become the standard for toxicology testing for all autopsy’s in future years as costs come down.

Such technology will have a positive effect on medical malpractice cases for both sides.  Better information makes it easier for everyone to identify exactly whether a medical error caused or contributed to a death which otherwise could have been prevented.  Such  information can take some of the guess work out of the equation, making it easier to know when a case is worth pursuing and, conversely, vindicating someone who has done nothing actionable.

 

 

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