Handling Difficult and Disturbing Forensic Cases for Coroners and Medical Examiners

Handling Difficult and Disturbing Forensic Cases for Coroners and Medical Examiners

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This webinar originally occurred on October 17th, 2019
Duration: 1 hour

There are over 2000 medical examiner and coroner offices throughout the United States. All are involved in determining the cause and manner of death and communicating this information to families of the deceased and public health and criminal justice agencies.  The size, structure, and organization of medical examiner and coroner offices vary widely across jurisdictions, from large offices staffed with Board-certified forensic pathologists to small offices run by part-time staff and elected coroners. This webinar is intended for all personnel who have responsibilities for any aspect of death investigation related to medical examiner and coroner offices.

The work of death investigation can be meaningful and challenging, as it presents both technical and psychosocial demands. This webinar offers advanced review into the psychosocial challenges of death investigation. The instruction and exercises are based on our program of research with medical examiner and coroner offices throughout the US, including a trial of a web-based intervention to reduce work-related stress in medical examiner personnel which was funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

We address two specific psychosocial challenges of death investigation: managing the social and emotional consequences of working on disturbing cases and communicating with highly distressed families of the deceased. Medical examiner personnel and coroners encounter cases, including deaths of children and mass fatality events which can raise complex moral issues and heighten the emotional demands of death investigation. Our research suggests that exposure to difficult and disturbing cases may increase the risk for stress-related health conditions.

All personnel working in death investigation are likely to have some exposure to difficult and disturbing cases. However, depending on their experience, training, and life histories, personnel differ in the types of cases that they find difficult or disturbing. They also differ in the strategies they use to address work stress. To maximize the capacity to manage the psychosocial demands of death investigation, medical examiner and coroner personnel need strategies to support effective and collaborative communication among the workforce.

The research also shows that the stress associated with difficult cases is exacerbated when employees have contact with distressed family members of the deceased.  Offices vary in the type and qualification of personnel who interact with families of the deceased. Coroners and medical examiner personnel, including those who work in administrative and investigative units can encounter intensely distressed family members. Some of these family members are intensely sad, others are angry and combative. All personnel who have contact with family members need strategies to manage these challenging interactions.

The webinar begins with a discussion of the psychosocial demands presented by medical examiner and coroner work. We present results of research examining the links between different types of workplace demands and symptoms of depression and post-traumatic distress. Next, we describe the psychological processes which can buffer the effects of work stress. These processes include the development of strategies to help organize complex social and emotional information.

Finally, we present exercises and case examples to guide the process of communication with families of the deceased and communication among employees. The information and exercises are derived from the training offered to mental health clinicians. The ideas and strategies are used to facilitate the management of high intensity interpersonal interactions. These exercises have been successfully employed in interventions for medical examiner personnel. Together, the instruction and exercises in the webinar will provide advanced skills in conceptualizing and responding to the psychosocial demands of death investigation.

Detailed Learning Objectives:
1.) Identify psychosocial challenges facing medical examiner and coroner personnel
2.) Gain knowledge about links between psychosocial challenges and work stress.
3.) Identify strategies for addressing psychosocial challenges and reducing work stress

Presenter: Dr. Elizabeth Brondolo | Professor at St. John's University in Queens, NY and Director of the Collaborative Health Integration Research Program

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Funding for this Forensic Technology Center of Excellence event has been provided by the National Institute of Justice.

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