ME: Hospitals should track causes of fatal ODs

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County’s chief medical examiner started his annual report with a letter scolding local hospitals for not doing enough to track overdose deaths.

The letter states that hospitals haven’t changed their procedures despite numerous requests from the ME’s Office.

“I’ve asked and asked and asked and asked,” Kent County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle told 24 Hour News 8 Monday.

Target 8 has been documenting the drug epidemic in West Michigan. It’s clearly a problem.

But the medical examiner says he often can’t determine causes of death because hospitals are throwing out crucial blood samples.

“Then we are never going to know,” Cohle said.

He said his office deals with one or two such cases every month.

>>PDF: Medical examiner’s report and letter

He said that to solve a problem, you have to first learn what’s causing it and that he can’t do his part without help.

In his report, he praised law enforcement agencies for their aid, saying they submit drug paraphernalia found with the deceased, but added, “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Grand Rapids area hospitals.”

He said that too often, patients believed to have overdosed are given a urine test. Those tests don’t detect important drugs like fentanyl and also don’t measure how much of the drug is in the person’s system. Once it’s determined that a patient overdosed and will not survive, they go to intensive care until they pass away.

Cohle said that in the meantime, the patient’s blood is thrown out — blood that could determine what drug and how much of it caused the death.

“I think the problem is if someone is brain dead, there’s nothing you can do for them and they don’t want to do any ‘unnecessary testing.’ That doesn’t make any difference to them why the person got to that point,” Cohle said. “So probably because they aren’t reimbursed by insurance companies.”

Whatever the reason, the consequences trickle down. Without a cause of death, the dealer who sold the drugs may not be prosecuted and families are left without answers.

Cohle is asking hospitals to document what drugs are in patients’ bloodwork and how much or save blood samples and send them to his office.

“Hopefully this will bring about — at least help bring about — an improvement in (hospitals’) ability to help determine the cause of death in every drug overdose,” he said.

When asked for comment, Spectrum Health sent this statement to 24 Hour News 8:

“Spectrum Health is committed to fighting opioid misuse and caring for all patients with substance use issues. We have many ongoing efforts focused on this issue, from patient care to how providers prescribe medications. In addition, we take pride with the work done by our physicians and staff when overdose patients arrive in crisis. Spectrum Health also maintains the region’s only toxicology lab and clinical medical toxicology service, which works closely with the medical examiner and can run many comprehensive tests when requested. We value our relationship with the Kent County Medical Examiner’s Office, welcome discussions and will continue to work together to better serve the people of Kent County.”

Metro Health – University of Michigan Health provided a brief statement, saying, “We are aware of the report and are taking time to carefully review it.”

Mercy Health did not provide a response Monday.