January 13, 2022

Interview with Dr. Christopher Young, MD, Ventura County Medical Examiner

COAST has enjoyed the collaboration of COAST Leads from agencies within Ventura County, including Public Health, Emergency Medical Services, Medical Examiner’s Office, Health Care Agency and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. Today we are talking with Christopher Young, MD, Ventura County Medical Examiner.

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and where did you receive your education/training?

Dr. Young: I was a California kid. I grew up in Topanga Canyon and the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Chaminade High School in West Hills. Although I wasn’t from Ventura, I spent a great deal of time in the county surfing and boating. My undergraduate degree in biology was earned at Pepperdine University.

After graduating from Pepperdine, I left California for many years. Medical school was at UT in Houston, Texas. My residency training was at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Oregon. My forensics fellowship was in Dallas, Texas at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences. After completing my training, I lived in Portland, Oregon where I served as a forensic pathologist for the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office for 13 years. I was hired as the Chief Medical Examiner for Ventura County in July of 2017. After spending 23 years training and practicing in other states, it felt great to return home to California.

Ventura County is one of only a small number of California counties with a Medical Examiner rather than a Coroner. Explain the difference and why having a Medical Examiner is beneficial.

Dr. Young: Within the United States, there are two systems of death investigation: coroner and medical examiner. The coroner system dates to feudal England and the medical examiner system started in the early 1900’s in the U.S. While both offices employ forensic pathologists to perform autopsies, a coroner’s office is usually run by an elected person with no formal medical training while a medical examiner’s office is overseen by a physician, usually a forensic pathologist. While there are few federal regulations pertaining to death investigation, for the past 100 years, the federal government has repeatedly recommended replacing coroner’s offices with modern, independent medical examiner’s offices.

Of California’s 58 counties, Ventura County is one of only six counties with a modern medical examiner system of death investigation. Ventura County is especially progressive, having switched from coroner to medical examiner way back in 1974. Although only six counties have a medical examiner’s office, almost half of the state’s population is served this modern system of death investigation. It is the larger, more progressive counties that have made the change to a medical examiner system. The total combined population of the six medical examiner counties of Ventura, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Joaquin comprise nearly half of the population for California.

Forensic pathologists play a vital role in communities and in the justice system concerning matters related to death. For death investigation to be done properly, investigations must be performed in an objective, neutral and independent setting. The investigation of deaths can become the focus of political or legal pressures by individuals or offices seeking to influence a pathologist’s findings.

Two of the primary reasons for the federal government to recommend the medical examiner model of death investigation are independence and medical oversight. Independence is critical as potential and inevitable conflicts of interest arise in offices run by elected officials and law enforcement. The most obvious and glaring example of conflict of interest occurs when in-custody death or police shooting death is investigated by the same law enforcement agency involved in the death.

Another distinguishing feature of a medical examiner office is that these offices are run by physicians with specialized training. An example where death investigation oversight by a physician is especially important is the opioid epidemic. In order to understand the opioid epidemic, the drugs which caused the death must be identified. In some California, non-medical examiner offices, a pathologist may conclude that a death is the result of a “combined drug overdose”. In these offices, the death certificate is often completed by a non-medical deputy investigator.

For these overdose cases the death certificate may indicate an overdose with no drugs listed or, alternatively, the deputy may attempt to include every drug listed in the toxicology report on the death certificate (including many drugs not related to the death). In Ventura County, every death certificate is certified by a physician.  When the death is the result of an overdose, only those specific drugs that contributed to death are listed on the death certificate. Medical opinion and certification are necessary to accurately identify and characterize individual overdose deaths; but are also critical to accurately define and understand the opioid epidemic as a whole. The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office has been complimented by state California Department of Public Health for the detailed information included on death certificates for overdose deaths.

COAST has focused on the opioid crisis in our county. What have you seen over the past three years?

Dr. Young: The opioid crisis is a complex and ongoing problem throughout the United States which has also affected Ventura County. Over the past three years, we have seen an unprecedented numbers of overdose deaths. The majority of these deaths were the result of opioids and methamphetamine. Opioid deaths include prescription opioids like oxycodone or codeine, but a large percentage of these deaths in Ventura were due to heroin and fentanyl. Prior to 2020, fentanyl overdoses were less common than heroin deaths. Overdose deaths increased dramatically in 2020 and the increase was almost entirely due to fentanyl. Comparing deaths from 2019 and 2020, the total number of overdose deaths in Ventura increased from 149 to 217. Comparing these same years, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths went from 33 to 87.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid drug which causes respiratory depression. Historically, the illicit form of the drug was recognized as a white powder. Death investigations in Ventura over the past year and a half have shown that fentanyl can have many forms. In some instances, illicitly manufactured, counterfeit pills appear to be Xanax or Oxycontin but are, in fact, fentanyl. In other cases, tan, sticky material resembling heroin also turns out to be fentanyl. While many of the individuals who overdosed on fentanyl may have known that they were using fentanyl, many other people may have overdosed and died unknowingly.

COAST helped your office produce an ‘Overdose Do’s and Don’ts’ video to educate first responders in helping you do your job when there’s an overdose death investigation. What other support has Behavioral Health/COAST provided to the MEO in the past few years?

Dr. Young: The opioid epidemic is a community problem which affects people throughout our county. The only way to approach the monumental issue of opiate addiction, treatment and prevention is through teamwork. Behavioral Health and COAST have facilitated communication and cooperation between agencies and departments so that we can fight the epidemic as a team. The educational video for first responders at overdose scenes is just one example of how resources have been used to improve the county approach to the epidemic.

In addition to helping promote best practices at overdose scenes, the COAST team has also helped our office promote safe prescribing. COAST provided staffing resources to help our office identify prescribers whose patients died, and the prescribed drug contributed to the death. Oftentimes, a physician may not be informed about a patient’s death. For this group of overdose deaths, the physician receives a letter from the Medical Examiner’s Office. The purpose of these courtesy letters is to inform the doctor about the death and to provide resources for safe prescribing. The focus of these letters is not punitive, but the goal is to promote best practices and improve communication with providers.

Regarding the opioid crisis, I get especially excited to work with our partner organizations to prevent overdose deaths; work I like to refer to as “medical examiner prevention”. One way that the COAST team facilitated collaboration is through sharing data. Along with other agencies and departments, the Ventura Medical Examiner’s Office is sharing data with the COAST epidemiologists. Death investigation information like location of overdoses and location of death will be combined with location data from other sources to generate maps which will help guide our county's response toward prevention and treatment. If I start to feel discouraged by the increasing number of overdose deaths within the county, I find solace when I think about the hard work of caring individuals and organizations within our county working to prevent these deaths and I think about the lives saved by supplying naloxone.

How many investigators do you have on staff?

Dr. Young: The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office employs seven full time medicolegal death investigators. Over the past year, our office has seen a steady increase in caseload, in part due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic. In response to the increased workload, we have utilized one of our Forensic Pathology Technicians to assist in investigations. During the COVID-19 spike, the county provided our office with a disaster worker from human resources. She quickly integrated with our team and helped us through these tough times.

What prompted you to go into this field?  

Dr. Young: My father is a physician, specialized in treating people with burn injuries. As a pre-med, undergraduate student, I accompanied him to the hospital operating room and the county courtroom. In the operating room, I observed a team of physicians as they repaired life threatening and disfiguring burn wounds. In the court room, I observed my father as he provided expert medical testimony in child abuse burn cases. These experiences would play a large role in my decision to become a forensic pathologist years later.

I started medical school planning to become a family practice physician or surgeon and knew nothing about the specialty of forensic pathology. Like my fellow classmates, I knew that I wanted to use my abilities to help others and serve the community. I was drawn to surgical pathology because it required observational, deductive and hands on skills. Like others considering this field, I had reservations about becoming a surgical pathologist because most of the job is spent looking through a microscope, with little patient interaction. During a medical school surgical pathology rotation, I was invited to visit the medical examiner’s office in Houston, Texas. This was my first encounter with forensic pathology and almost instantly, I recognized that this was my calling.

After exploring this specialty further, I realized that my talents were well suited to this type of work. Forensic pathology requires hands on and observation skills but also requires communication skills to explain findings to others. The conclusions that I make as a forensic pathologist are based on autopsy observations, microscopic specimen evaluation and toxicology interpretation. The most rewarding aspect of the job is the interactions with other people. Clearly explaining findings and conclusions to family members, law enforcement officers, attorneys, jurors, insurance companies, reporters and other physicians requires communication skills, empathy, and patience.

At the end of the day, I became a doctor to help others and the community and forensic pathology fulfills these goals. The information generated from our investigations and autopsies can provide closure for family members, but this information can also save lives, for example when an inherited medical condition is identified. Providing physicians with details about how their patient died can help improve their practice of medicine. Medical expert testimony can help resolve criminal and civil issues within our justice system. Regarding the opiate epidemic, my hope is that information learned from our investigations and autopsies will help guide efforts to prevent future addiction, overdoses, and deaths.

Do you have any tips/advice that the general public could benefit from knowing in regard to opiate/fentanyl overdose?

Dr. Young: I think the best advice I can offer is to take action. The opioid crisis potentially affects everyone in our community, and we need to acknowledge the problem and take measures to protect our friends and family. Openly talking with our youth about the dangers of drug use and experimentation can go a long way toward preventing future addiction and deaths. Safely disposing of unused prescriptions will help prevent drug diversion where the drug is sold or used by someone else. If you or someone you know has an addiction or uses illicitly obtained drugs of any sort, there is always the possibility that the drug might contain fentanyl. Because any illicit drug might contain fentanyl, knowing the signs and symptoms of opioid toxicity and having naloxone on hand could save a life.

What else could benefit residents of Ventura County to know about the Medical Examiner's Office?

Dr. Young: I am proud to be the Chief Medical Examiner for Ventura County. The staff in my office have a difficult job to do and they are hardworking and care about the community that we serve. The county has shown our office a great deal of support allowing us carry out our duties in a timely, accurate and compassionate manner.

Thank you, Dr. Young, for sharing your valuable experience with us!