The role of a forensic nurse in the medical investigation

The following is an excerpt from an article that was published in the February 2014 issue of Servamus Magazine wherein they highlight the role a forensic nurse plays in the medical investigation.

The role of a forensic nurse in the medical investigation by Kotie Geldenhuys

Failure to preserve forensic evidence results in a low rate of conviction (Data and McQuoid-Mason, 2001). Trained doctors with the required experience in clinical forensic services are extremely scarce in South Africa, but trained forensic nurses will be able to assist and alleviate this shortage. The application of forensic nurses may be a major contribution towards victim empowerment in general and this action can contribute to an increased reporting rate of child abuse.

Most forensic nurses work at a hospital’s emergency room. A nurse is often the first person to talk to the patient/victim and the family; the first one to undress or help undress the patient/victim; and the first one to observe the types of trauma inflicted on a patient. Therefore, s/he plays an importnat role in the investigation of crime and the legal process in terms of victims of violence.

Any patient with liability-related traumatic injuries is considered a clinical forensic patient. The way in which emergency nurses handle forensic evidence can contribute to the success of a case in the courtroom. Considering the importance of the role of the emergency nurse, it seems vital that there be a forensic nurse present in all emergency rooms. However, there is currently a shortage of these highly skilled experts.

These nurses can continue with normal emergency work until a case of abuse requires their attention. For the purpose of this article, however, we assume that forensic nurses are present in every emergency room.

With the establishment of the special Sexual Offences Courts, the judicial system has addressed some of the crucial problem areas in terms of service delivery to victims. However, the Department of Health has to pursue the same objectives of specially trained and accredited health workers rendering services in specialised units around the country. Dr Tromp Els, from the North West Department of Health, is of the opinion that if adequately trained nurses were deployed and the courts acknowledged their expertise, this would be a major achievement.

What is forensic nursing?

Contrary to popular belief, forensic nurses do not spend their days working with corpses, nor is their work limited to assisting rape victims. Forensic nurses also work with other types of interpersonal abuse, such as domestic violence, child and elderly abuse, neglect and physiological as well as psychological abuse. They can even assist and examine victims of near-fatal or fatal traumas, such as shooting or stabbing incidents.

Forensic nursing provides an exploration of the forensic aspects of health care, which include: principles and philosophies of the forensic sciences; structure and function of institutions of legal medicine; forensic psychopathology; signs and legal aspects of death; certification of death; bioethics; victimology; traumatology; sexual and domestic violence; medicolegal documentation; and rules of evidence.

The application of forensic science to nursing reveals a wider role in the investigation of crime and in the legal process, and that role has been recognised as a great asset in the evaluation of injury and death. In simple terms, forensic nursing means the application of the nursing process to public or legal proceedings. It is the application of the forensic aspects of health care to the scientific investigation of trauma (Lynch, 1995).

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