Role of Forensic Pathology Services in Health
The Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) in the Western Cape was established in 2006 when the South African Police Service Mortuaries transferred to Western Cape Government Health and the Directorate Forensic Pathology Services was established within the Department of Health. The FPS unit under the control of Western Cape Government Health, is a service that is rendered to families of deceased and to the South African police services.
FPS plays a pivotal role in the fragile healthcare system, particularly at the end of the life cycle. Their role is to collect the remains, and conduct autopsies if and when it is needed. There is a misconception that all deceased bodies need to be autopsied, but this is not the case. People who die from natural causes such as heart attacks and old age are often not autopsied. However, there are instances when a medical doctor or family may request that an autopsy be performed to establish the exact cause of death. Consent of the family is not needed to perform an autopsy and the family/relatives may not deny this process.
In cases where someone dies due to unnatural causes (violence, murder, suspected crime), FPS will automatically conduct autopsies to establish the cause of death as this may required in a court of law. Once conducted, FPS will only release the findings to SAPS and the family of the deceased and then hand over the body to undertakers or families once the process is complete.
FPS is often last on the scene to collect a body at murder/crime scenes and is often called at a later stage by SAPS or once the investigation at the scene is concluded. Only then is FPS called to collect the body. Where there is a death suspected of being due to unnatural causes, the SAPS Officer or hospital will contact the closest forensic pathology laboratory. This is only done after the Police have concluded their crime scene investigation, and photography and the death declaration has been completed
In the Cape Town Metro Area, the Metro EMS Control Centre will dispatch either our Tygerberg or Salt River Forensic Pathology Laboratory vehicles. Members of the South African Police Service will contact our control centre via their SAPS Radio Control Centre. Hospitals will contact the EMS Control Centre directly.
In more rural areas, the nearest forensic pathology laboratory service, will attend to the scene and remove the deceased. The Forensic Pathology Service may only remove the deceased from a scene once the person has been declared dead and the crime scene, and death scene investigations have been concluded.
For the Metro alone, FPS processed the remains of 8 365 individuals between July 2016 and July 2017. To date, the Western Cape has about 18 forensic pathology facilities across the Province which includes two academic forensic pathology laboratories in the Cape Town Metropolitan Area.
On 15 September, Western Cape Government Health Forensic Pathology Services conducted a ground breaking ceremony to signify the beginning of construction of the new 10 399 square meter Observatory Forensic Pathology Laboratory. The R 245 000 000.00 academic forensic pathology facility will also provide for the integration of Forensic Pathology Services with the academic development provided by UCT and the NHLS.
To further show the Department’s commitment in ensuring quality working environment, a collective agreement has been reached nationally, which makes provision for a Danger Allowance for Forensic Pathology Services within the Public Service.