Cobb medical examiner earns accreditation after years-long transformation

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Changes began after critical audit

The Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office has reached full accreditation — a years-long goal for both Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Gulledge and resident Tom Cheek — nearly a decade after Cheek began pushing for changes.

The National Association of Medical Examiners awarded the accreditation after its inspector found no deficiencies in the office’s operations and the new building, which opened in 2020.

“All checklist items within the inspection were fully met; this is exceptional performance for a newly accredited office,” said Dr. Mary Ann Sens in her final inspection report.

In 2013, Cheek began looking to the medical examiner’s office after he was dissatisfied with his son’s autopsy. His inquiries prompted a critical audit of the office, which found that the medical examiner at the time, Brian Frist, had no oversight, operated with an overinflated budget and used the county facilities to conduct private autopsies without paying the county.

Frist then retired, shortly after Cheek filed a complaint with the Georgia Composite Medical Board.

“My job was to research and expose what was in place,” Cheek said. “(Gulledge) deserves all the credit for what he has built from nothing.”

Gulledge, a certified forensic pathologist, was hired in 2015 and spearheaded the effort to revitalize the department. The key improvements the office needed to reach accreditation, he said, were an updated facility, additional staff and standardized operating procedures and protocols.

The medical examiner’s office investigates violent, suspicious, unattended or unnatural deaths in the county to determine the cause, often through an autopsy. It provides independent reports in criminal investigations and to family members of those who die under unusual circumstances.

The medical examiner’s association helps give the public reassurance that high standards are being met, Gulledge said.

“Another agency, another forensic pathologist, has come in and has reviewed our case files, has reviewed our policies, has looked at our building, has talked to our people, and they independently are saying this office does a good job,” he said.

Cheek said the office’s turnaround was evident when he toured the new facility. He said accreditation is an important step.

“It puts a process in place to make sure that that office is run correctly, no matter who the chief medical examiner is, and no matter who is on the Cobb County Board,” Cheek said. “There are doctors, peers, overseeing the quality of work in that office for as long as the office is in existence.”