The job of state medical examiner is a crucial one, but Utah has a hard time keeping the post filled. It's easy to see why. It involves high skill and advanced training, low pay, and an extraordinarily heavy work load.
Dr. Edwin S. Sweeney, state medical examiner since 1985, this week announced his resignation, effective Aug. 26, to enter private practice in Nevada. He said he has had enough of long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions.When he took the job, Sweeney was the fourth Utah medical examiner in less than 10 years; now he is leaving, too. That kind of turnover is destructive to the close working relationships an ME needs with the police, the courts, funeral homes, and physicians.
Sweeney and his assistant must investigate about 2,000 death cases a year, do external examinations of perhaps 400 bodies each year, and perform another 550 autopsies, as well as certifying the 9,000 deaths in Utah each year. They must spend hours testifying and presenting evidence in criminal trials. Accuracy, skill and judgment are vital.
In addition, Sweeney must be the administrator of the medical examiner's office, including a significant amount of paperwork.
For this, he is paid $71,000 a year. That may seem like a handsome sum, but it is the lowest salary paid to a state medical examiner in the nation. Even in the West, the nearest salary is about $15,000 a year higher.
Facilities for the medical examiner are too small, poorly designed, shabby, and the roof leaks badly. New quarters have been approved by the Legislature, but it may be 1991 before they are ready.
Given the responsibilities and demands of the job, it's hardly surprising that Utah's medical examiners leave for other fields.
While Utah clearly has budget problems, it cannot afford to be ranked at the bottom of the list for paying one of its most important specialists. The work load needs to be lightened as well, which may require another assistant.
The pay and the repeated turnover in the office make it difficult to fill the post with a highly qualified person. Yet that is what Utah must have. Like it or not, the medical examiner's budget needs more money.