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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With a pathologist position open for over a year, Spokane County Medical Examiner hopes visa program fixes staffing woes

The Spokane County Medical Examiner building is located at the corner of Spokane Street and First Avenue.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Medical Examiner’s Office doesn’t have enough bodies.

The office has been trying to hire a fourth forensic pathologist for more than a year with no luck. Now they’re turning to the J-1 Physician Visa Waiver program in hopes of recruiting someone who went to medical school outside of the United States.

“We’re trying to get creative,” said Dr. Veena Singh, chief medical examiner.

Currently, the United States has about 750 full-time board certified forensic pathologists, but that number should be closer to 1,500 to deal with rising caseloads, according to a February Forensic Magazine article.

That shortage of pathologists means applicants often have their pick of jobs, Singh said. If they’re looking at the Northwest region, often people will apply for jobs in places like Seattle or Portland, “somewhere that has name recognition,” she added.

“It’s hard for us to complete just on sort of recognition from afar,” Singh said.

Medical examiner’s offices are required to keep the number of autopsies at a certain level per pathologist to retain their accreditation. Last year, Spokane exceeded that number.

“We received a little ding,” Singh said.

Hiring another pathologist is crucial to preventing burnout and keeping accreditation, Singh said.

In the year since the job was posted, three of the four applicants needed a J1 visa to be considered.

The visa waiver program is administered by the Washington State Department of Health, according to the program’s website. A J-1 or exchange visitor visa is generally for citizens of a foreign country who want to participate in an approved program.

For physicians, they’re allowed complete a residency in the United States but then must return to their country for two years before attempting to return to work in the U.S., according to the program’s website.

The program Singh hopes to use allows those pathologists to stay in the United States by making a three-year commitment to work in a rural or underserved area.

Each state gets 30 waivers a year. At least 20 of those are for primary care physicians, with up to 10 for specialists. One is dedicated to medical examiners due to the shortage in the state, Singh said.

Historically, Washington hasn’t always used all 30 slots, so “the odds are pretty good” Spokane will qualify, Singh said.

The three-year commitment is a huge bonus for Singh, she added, noting with so many pathologist openings, people are often recruited for other jobs.

Being fully staffed would allow pathologists to not feel rushed on complex cases, devote time to other duties like pre-trial interviews, and continue teaching and mentoring future pathologists, Singh said.

“People don’t stop dying because we’re understaffed,” Singh said. “We can do it for the short term, we can work the way we’re working, but for the long term it’s not the way we want to function.”