Texas Medical Center — Houston, Texas   —   TMC NEWS
  Vol. 25, No. 8  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next May 1, 2003 

Medical Examiner’s Office Expands Forensic Nursing Division

This past year has been one of growth for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office. Last April, the office hired its first forensic nurse investigator, Stacey Lasseter, making Harris County the first medical examiner’s office in Texas to incorporate the forensic nursing role into medicolegal death investigation.

Forensic nurses are specially trained to combine the forensic aspects of health care with practical nursing and apply that knowledge in the scientific death investigation of victims and/or perpetrators of violence, criminal activities, and traumatic accidents. The expertise of the forensic nurse is drawn from nursing science, forensic science, and criminal justice allowing them to better identify, collect, and document injuries and evidence. This often leads to plea bargains, thus eliminating victim testimony. These nurses are often called to testify as expert witnesses when cases are presented in court.

Forensic nurse investigators impact a death investigation in a number of ways. These include:

  • conducting death-scene investigations with emphasis on infant deaths;
  • collecting evidence in suspected sexual assault and child abuse cases;
  • reviewing medical records and obtaining additional test results required by the pathologist;
  • providing case management for complicated cases;
  • collaborating with organ and tissue procurement agencies to determine appropriate release of organs and tissue;
  • Participating in monthly Harris County Child Fatality Review Team meetings; and
  • preparing and presenting educational offerings for community agencies.

Forensic nurses complement the forensic investigators, resulting in an improved investigative process while enhancing interaction among community agencies. They provide a vital link between the investigative staff and the pathologist. With advances in medicine, people are living longer and are prescribed multiple medications. The nurse has the knowledge needed to assist the pathologist by interpreting often voluminous medical records.

A forensic nurse’s knowledge base plays an important role in the investigation of natural deaths. Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office statistics from last year revealed that approximately 80 percent of reported deaths occurred from natural causes. The forensic nurse also assists law enforcement in determining if scene findings are consistent with the medical history and medications present.

Harris County Commissioner’s Court recently granted a request for additional forensic nurse investigator positions at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office. Two registered nurses have been hired to continue with program development and one position remains open. These nurses will provide coverage for evening and night shifts so that medical issues may be addressed more efficiently. In addition, the nurses will conduct physical assessments for preautopsy release of corneas, and respond to hospitals to assess and document findings on certain medical examiner cases. They will also assist with the newly established forensic internship program in the investigative division.

For more information on forensic nursing opportunities at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, visit http://www.co.harris.tx.us and click on general information or call (713) 796-6740. To learn more about forensic nursing, visit the International Association of Forensic Nurses at http://www.iafn.org.

– Stacey Lassiter

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