ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A roomy, refurbished and gleaming new morgue that opens this week at the University of Michigan Health System could double the number of autopsies in which U-M students and residents can observe and participate.
The project, budgeted for $1.35 million, was accomplished through an unusual partnership with the Washtenaw County Medical Examiner. The county contributed about $250,000 to the project, including grant funds, and many of the county's autopsies will be conducted at the new facility.
Jeffrey Jentzen, M.D., Ph.D., director of U-M's autopsy and forensic services, says he's unaware of a similar partnership in Michigan and adds that arrangements like this are rare around the country.
Jentzen estimates that up to 600 cases per year now can be conducted in U-M's new morgue, up from about 300 per year currently.
"All of our cases are instructional, so our students will have access to all of them, even those done by the county examiner," Jentzen says.
The morgue's renovation increases the number of autopsy tables from two to four and adds a special autopsy room with air systems that can control the spread of odors or infectious diseases. The facility is brighter, more secure and offers more storage.
"One of the reasons for the upgrade is an increased emphasis on infection precautions during autopsies," says Jentzen, adding that the morgue's air can be recirculated 15 times an hour. "Ventilation is key, plus others can watch the procedures from behind a window to keep them from being exposed."
The renovation did not increase the morgue's square footage, but instead organized the space more efficiently. Also added was an observation room that allows students, law enforcement or others to watch procedures without having to go into the examination area.
Diana French, U-M's coordinator of Autopsy and Forensic Services, says the new setup allows for much easier movement of bodies, reducing the risk for injury. The new facility also has updated locker room and shower facilities, she said.
"It's ergonomically friendly," French says, pointing out the autopsy stations in the new, brightly-lit room. "When you are moving bodies constantly, there are numerous opportunities for injuries, and it is time-consuming."
Also included in the upgrades is a chilled storage area that can hold up to 25 bodies, increasing the Ann Arbor area's ability to react to a disaster.
An added benefit to the construction, which began in March, is that French was able to set up a temporary morgue facility with a system of refrigerated trucks and the cooperation of the Division of Anatomical Sciences within the Office of Medical Education. The department now has a plan for temporarily expanding space if the morgue is ever overwhelmed or out of commission.
Richard M. Fleece, Washtenaw County's interim health officer and environmental health director, called the morgue project a major milestone in the county's efforts to improve its medical examiners program
"Not only will this provide greater capability, it will reduce costs in the long run," Fleece said.
Jentzen says the new facility will be great training ground for students, especially those interested in forensic pathology. He says there is a national shortage of forensic pathologists - who typically work for governments - and U-M is hoping to develop a fellowship in the field.
Many hospitals are beginning to rely less on autopsies, and some are being built without morgues, Jentzen says, as doctors rely more on high-tech medical equipment to detect causes of death. But autopsies still play an important role, Jentzen says, adding that there still major findings in autopsies in 30 to 40 percent of cases.
"There has been a de-emphasis on autopsies. Physicians aren't asking for them as much. People assume with all the high-tech functions that autopsies aren't needed," Jentzen said. "But without an autopsy, you're just guessing."
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Written by Mary F. Masson