HUNTER families have been waiting up to three weeks to bury their loved ones due to an "unprecedented" number of coronial post-mortem cases.
Families have been forced to delay burials and funeral services while awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine a cause of death.
Paul Smyth, of CR Smyth & Son Funeral Services, said they had worked with several distressed families who had waited "the best part of three weeks" for the results of an autopsy.
"It is tragic for families," he said. "My understanding is that they can't get enough pathologists to actually conduct the post-mortems."
He said the delays had meant some families had been unable to have a "viewing" of their loved one prior to the funeral because they were "unrecognisable" by that time.
Michael Symonds, executive director of NSW Health Pathology’s Forensic and Analytical Science Service, said the Newcastle facility was currently managing a record rise in the number of coronial post-mortem cases.
"In January 2019, there were 253 referrals to our Newcastle facility, which is a 35 per cent increase on the average number of monthly referrals - which remains steady at around 188 - many of which were complex cases," he said. "We are prioritising cases by complexity and urgency, with homicide and paediatric cases considered the most urgent.
"This is due to the need to secure critical evidence for criminal cases and provide urgent answers to grieving families."
Mr Symonds said coronial post-mortems and related testing were carried out by NSW Health Pathology’s Forensic Medicine service at the request and direction of the Coroner in the event of an unexplained or unexpected death.
"Complex coronial post-mortems can only be performed by highly qualified forensic pathologists who have undergone specialist training and certification," he said. "Forensic pathologists also require the support of specialist teams including qualified technicians, social workers and other essential staff."
Mr Symonds said the "record" rise in cases was compounded by an international shortage of forensic pathologists, which was affecting coronial time frames across Australia and the world.
"They are challenging to recruit, particularly to rural and regional areas," he said.
"We have a number of strategies in place to attract more forensic pathologists, including active international recruitment efforts, as well as growing our own workforce. In 2019, we have our largest ever group of forensic pathology registrar trainees."
Mr Symonds said there were four full-time, and one part-time, forensic pathologists currently employed at the Newcastle facility.
"We are deeply sorry for the distress delays are causing some families, and we will continue to do everything we can to provide support and get the answers they need," he said.
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