Doctors who have specialised in forensic pathology play a crucial role in investigating and solving crimes.
For many of us, the very mention of ‘forensic science’ conjures up images of detective super heroes as portrayed in popular culture. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and a more recent example of Kathy Reich’s Dr. Temperance Brennan are some of the popular fictional characters who use forensic science for their investigations. But the subject is sometimes depicted in a far more alluring manner which in reality has brought forth the concept of the CSI effect or CSI syndrome. Named after the series Crime Scene Investigation, its portrayal of forensics is fairly exaggerated. So to anyone interested in being part of a forensic team that dashes off to the scene of crime with forensic kit on hand, don’t go by the show — you’ve been fairly warned.
So what is this field all about? Forensic science uses scientific principles and tools to investigate and analyse certain aspects related to a crime. Investigators on high profile cases tend to rely heavily on forensic testing and results to solve crimes from the mundane to the bizarre. Without them, cases would remain unsolved and pile up in the homicide department in which case, there really is no point to the whole whodunit concept, is there?
Forensic medicine, on the other hand, requires a medical practitioner to examine a corpse and determine the cause of death and facts related to the medical and legal aspects of the same.
So while the term forensics is popularly known and used during trials and criminal procedures, the subject is quite vast and has to be broken down into several categories such as forensic anthropology, pathology, archaeology, ballistics, blood spatter analysis, DNA profiling and even forensic art among other branches of the discipline.
Forensic pathology, with technological advancements has become a modernised practice of an existing science.
Dr. V.M. Rajeev, Assistant Professor in Kottayam Medical College, says, “Forensic medicine is a branch of science that has been in practice for long. A forensic pathologist needs to lay down facts and determine the cause of death and contribute his findings to shed light on a crime in a court of law; from identifying a body, estimating the time that has elapsed since death to cause and changes the body has been subjected to, among other things. Only in the last two decades or so has technology pushed forward this science with concepts such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis and more.”
Rohith Rajan is a third-year MBBS student at Karakonam Medical College, Kerala. Like most young aspiring doctors his age, he knew about forensics from movies and TV shows. “Even though what we learn in our course of study is theoretical, the concept is pretty much what we have understood from movies and books, frankly,” he says. But I gather it is not as glamorous or slick as it seems. But you learn in depth a lot more things you don’t generally come across, like the legal aspects attached to the subject.”
What is the scope of forensics in India, outside of hospitals?
Forensic doctors and experts work closely with the police and are called in cases that require decisive analysis, the result of which may be admissible in court. For a forensic expert, it is necessary to ascertain aspects in the human body such as drunkenness, rape, cause and time of death or how many hours have passed since death, if an injury is self-inflicted or caused by another, what kind of weapon may have caused said injury, blood spatters and patterns, if a suspicious death is suicide or murder, tracing bodily fluids and about toxics, poisons and antidotes, among other things. A forensic expert’s opinion goes a long way in shaping and breaking a case.
All aspiring doctors have to complete a compulsory module on forensic studies. But there aren’t many takers for this branch of medical science at the postgraduate level, though some doctors feel that there has been a healthy upward trend in terms of student interest in recent years. There are only a handful of youngsters who take up this branch of science out of interest. Sure, the branch is not nearly as lucrative as super speciality medical science, but once a practising doctor has earned a master’s degree in forensic medicine and has enough experience, he gradually moves up to a far higher pay-grade.
While a doctor with an MBBS qualification is sufficient to perform autopsies, a forensic doctor who has specialised in forensic pathology is generally preferred to do the same. After completing their MBBS degree, students (doctors) have to write a common entrance exam followed by three years of study and thesis research. But there is a shortage of forensic pathologists, says Dr. Rajeev. Young doctors prefer to take a postgraduate degree in super speciality courses because of the demand for such doctors and the fat pay cheque. “Two out of 14 district hospitals have a forensic pathologist. But the science has not been completely abandoned by students,” he says. “There are still doctors who willingly take up this field despite having to work mostly on cadavers.”
Rohith is in full agreement with this point. The only “disadvantage”, he says, is that as a forensic doctor, one doesn’t get to treat people. “You’re basically working on dead bodies and hardly ever work on a living person.”
Word of the wise to future forensic pathologists — be strong and get ready to hunch over some cadavers.