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The crime doctors

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 2 July 2012

Forensic physicians practise at the intersection of medicine and the legal system.

A typical workday for Dr Morris Odell might involve being cross-examined in court regarding a medical opinion, attending a crime scene, then later assessing and collecting biological samples from an assault victim.

Dr Odell is one of Australia’s few doctors practising full-time as a forensic physician.

His work at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) involves anything where forensic medical services are required for people in contact with the legal system.

Clinical forensic physicians work with living people, compared with forensic pathologists who focus on autopsy work.

Dr Odell says the main output of the VIFM is medicolegal reports, opinions and statements. 

Dr Odell works closely with the police, including assessing people who have been arrested to determine if they are fit to be interviewed — a responsibility that carries heavy consequences.

He also does a lot of work in “traffic medicine”, including assessing fitness to drive among people with neurological or other medical problems, or analysing crash injuries to determine who was driving the vehicle.

Before studying medicine, Dr Odell worked as an electrical engineer, so he also has a particular interest in electrical injuries. For instance, he advises the Victoria Police electronics laboratory, which tests Tasers that have been involved in a death.

Dr Odell’s first experience of forensic medicine was during an elective with Victoria Police when he was a medical student at the University of Melbourne. He was involved in work such as assessing the health of people in custody, and acute psychiatric work.

“I found it very interesting and thought it would be a fascinating area to work in”, he says.

He qualified as a general practitioner, but pursued his interest in forensic medicine by working part-time as a medical officer with the police, and later travelling to the United Kingdom to complete one of the few postgraduate qualifications in forensic medicine available at the time.

Back then, clinical forensic medicine was a service within the police force, becoming part of the VIFM in 1995.

Dr Odell has worked with VIFM since 1996 and says he loves the variety of his job, as well as his interaction with some of the more extreme elements of humanity.

“I like the amazing, unusual and bizarre aspects of the things we see. As a policeman once said to me, ‘we’ve got a ringside seat for the best show in town’.”

Dr Odell says some of the cases, such as homicide or child abuse cases, can be distressing; however, overall he finds his job incredibly rewarding.

“If you hear through the courts that something you have found has been important evidence that’s helped to solve a case, that can be very satisfying … but our job is not to be detectives, it’s to collect evidence that can help the legal system.”

Dr Odell has also found the time to pursue research interests. He is currently involved in a project looking at how to interpret cannabis levels in heavy users of the drug. While detection is straightforward, interpretation presents more of a challenge, he says.

In addition to his role at VIFM, Dr Odell is president of the Australasian Association of Forensic Physicians (www.forensicphysicians.org), which is working towards recognition of clinical forensic medicine as its own specialty or subspecialty.

“We do have some unique features that define us as a specialty. Forensic medicine has its own body of knowledge, for example, and its own specific journals.”

The group has already completed the time-consuming task of developing a training curriculum, which includes an academic component through Monash University’s Master of Forensic Medicine course.

Dr Odell teaches in this course, and also runs short courses through the Association.

Forensic physicians come from a variety of backgrounds, but are mostly GPs or emergency medicine doctors. Others come from a sexual health, infectious diseases or paediatrics background. Dr Odell says the field is not well suited to new medical graduates, but rather doctors with broad clinical experience.

He says working in the field has made him appreciate that forensic issues can emerge in virtually all areas of medicine.

“The variety of things that surface is infinite. There is no limit to the human experience. That is one of the things that intrigues me about the work that I do.”

  • Sophie McNamara


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