Medical examiner releases 2013 death stats

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published May 21, 2014

MACOMB COUNTY — Officials are hopeful that the information contained within the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s 2013 annual report will prove beneficial to the health and welfare of county residents in the years ahead.

According to the Medical Examiner, Dr. Daniel Spitz, the report — which includes a detailed breakdown of the cause and manner of Macomb County deaths last year — can provide valuable insights into changing lifestyles and emerging social issues within the region.

“Death statistics are very important,” Spitz said. “They can indicate trends or problems in a particular community that may need to be addressed by future public policies. Having actual numbers to back up things that people are observing will hopefully motivate some action to help reduce the death rates among these at-risk populations.”

Bill Ridella, director of the Macomb County Public Health Department, added that this type of data can also give public officials leverage when applying for grants to combat any health issues that are ailing local residents.

“It’s our goal as a health department to continue to analyze and disseminate vital statistics for the community and for policy makers,” he said. “Trends usually raise red flags for us, but we can look closely at what those trends are, figure out what’s causing the numbers to rise, and then share that information with people who can make change happen.”

Perhaps the most disturbing trend in the 2013 Medical Examiner’s report is the increase in drug-related deaths from the previous year. The total number jumped by about 33 percent, from 184 to 244. This included a 28 percent increase in heroin-related deaths and a 36 percent increase in deaths caused by prescription drugs.

Spitz believes that the reason behind this trend is simple.

“I think it all comes back to a greater accessibility to drugs,” he said. “More drug abuse in a community is going to lead to more drug-related deaths.”

Ridella stressed that this problem is “not unique to Macomb County,” stating that the Public Health Department plans to take a more in-depth look at these statistics to figure out what may be causing the increase. However, he noted that drug abuse is a growing issue across the nation, with deaths related to opiates — either via heroin or via prescription drugs — especially on the rise.

In 2013, suicides in Macomb County increased by 22 percent, from 94 to 115. There was also a rise in homicides from 7 to 12, although that number was still lower than the 14 homicides in 2011 and the 19 in 2010. In addition, the total number of accident-related deaths — which includes everything from car crashes, slip-and-falls and drownings to poisonings, asphyxiations and residential fires — jumped by 32 percent, from 271 to 358.

Still, Ridella pointed out that the two leading causes of death in Macomb County, other than natural causes, are consistently heart disease and cancer. These causes are not the types that the Medical Examiner’s Office investigates, however.

Spitz attributed many of the rising trends of his annual report to Macomb County’s growing population, as well as a population of seniors that has largely chosen to “age in place” rather than move out of the county. This resulted in an all-time high number of deaths last year at 8,246, which included a 6 percent increase in natural deaths, from 1,505 to 1,596.

The rise in total deaths means that the Medical Examiner’s Office was busier than ever in 2013. It conducted a record 2,122 death investigations, a 10 percent increase from the year before. The number of home hospice deaths also rose by 10 percent to 2,046 and accounted for about 25 percent of all reported deaths in the county. Meanwhile, the 648 total forensic examinations conducted by Spitz’s office represents a 13 percent increase over 2012. These procedures included 531 complete autopsies, 88 external examinations and 29 limited autopsies.

Last year, there was a 7 percent increase in the number of cremation permit authorizations issued countywide, with 3,598 altogether. Cremation as a final means of disposing human remains is now approaching 50 percent of all deaths in Macomb County. Spitz noted that this percentage has increased every year for the last decade.

A positive development in 2013 was that Macomb County generated the most tissue and cornea donors of any county in Michigan, as well as making the most referrals to the Gift of Life organ and tissue procurement agency and to the Michigan Eye Bank. In all, the Medical Examiner’s Office referred 365 deaths, which resulted in 24 tissue donors and 46 cornea donors.

Spitz was also proud to report that his office has moved closer to achieving accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME). Less than 10 percent of medical examiner’s offices nationwide have attained NAME accreditation, but it has been a point of emphasis for the Macomb County Board of Commissioners over the past year. Six of Spitz’s eight supervisory staff members and forensic investigators have achieved professional certification, and he recently submitted all required accreditation documents to NAME.

“Our next step in the process is to schedule a site visit, so that someone from NAME can come out here and visit our office,” Spitz explained. “I’m not really sure when that’s going to be, though, or how long this whole process is going to take. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens after the site visit.”

Although the 2013 Medical Examiner’s report provides a lot of helpful data for health officials, Ridella highlighted the importance of looking at numbers across a longer period of time.

“A lot of times, we will bundle three years of statistics together,” he said. “We like to look at what’s happening over a bigger stretch to see if something is truly becoming a trend. Then we try to find the best way to use that information to improve public health.”