Lesson 18: Use computers and technology to save time and money.

This lesson is counterintuitive to many people, particularly many chief medical examiners, politicians and appointed governmental employees in charge of budgets.

So many medical examiner offices in this country have so little access to some of the modern technology we enjoy today. Adequate computerization of office data, for example, seems like a luxury that we cannot afford. We do not think that these “luxuries” can actually save the government money.

Rather than spend money on fancy gadgets, many believe that what an office needs to do with their scarce resources is to hire more people. If an office falls behind in autopsy reports or the completion of death certificates, many are quick to blame these problems on inadequate personnel.

Perhaps it is time to view these issues a little differently.

The most expensive commodities in the medical examiner office are human beings. Hiring additional personnel is the most expensive solution to any workload problem. Not only do additional salaries need to be funded, but also benefits such as health insurance and pension plans need to be paid for. Also, human beings need to go on leave periodically, and they also get sick. Personnel problems also take up an inordinate amount of time to solve.

Computer hardware and software require money for the initial purchases, for upgrades, and for maintenance and repair, but they do not have nearly the costs associated with them that humans have. Computers do not require vacation leave, sick leave, or family and medical leave. Although some computer problems may be thorny, they do not present as many difficulties as most human beings. Also, computers can perform certain tasks much more efficiently than humans, particularly the tasks of adding, remembering, retrieving and sorting data.

Computers improve the cost/benefit ratio of the office. They decrease the costs of operating the office by saving time and money, and they increase the benefits by minimizing mistakes and by allowing the provision of services in a timely manner.

Yet we think of computerizing the office data as a luxury we cannot afford. I have found instead that computers will allow you to do more work with fewer people.

During my tenure as a chief medical examiner, we not only set up a computer network for the office but we also had an expert design the database program. Developing a database program tailored for the office can be done easily and inexpensively. We also improved the function of that program with time and upgraded our hardware and software continually, all at a fraction of the cost of hiring additional personnel.

I am no computer expert. I do not pretend to keep up with the latest in computer technology, but I have learned through experience that many computer applications now readily available can be implemented with great effect and little cost.

I was amazed, for example, at how utilizing voice recognition software for autopsy dictations not only saved time but also saved the office much money. Although this technology is not perfect, improvements on it are made all the time. Other new applications are being made available all the time.

The problem is, I believe, that implementing technology solutions requires thinking ahead. It requires anticipation at budget time as the chief considers future needs. Too many chief medical examiners do not think ahead, so when the services begin to slide, they scream for more money to hire additional personnel. Certainly, computers do not perform autopsies, so computers are not the total answer when the workload increases. Still, it is much easier to do more with less when an efficient computerized system for data handling is functional and in place.

The chief medical examiner should provide a vision for applying new technologies to the medical examiner setting.