UNM anthropologist to unveil new database website

According to a report by the 2018 New Mexico Selected Health Statistics Annual Report, 19,023 New Mexicans died in 2018. Most of these deaths were the result of common illnesses like heart disease or unintentional injuries like automobile crashes. There are some deaths, however, that are not so easy to explain. In these cases, families and law enforcement alike trust the Office of the Medical Investigator to provide insight.

Associate Professor of UNM’s Department of Anthropology and Forensic Anthropologist for the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) Dr. Heather Edgar has spent years examining the dead to help families understand the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths. She believes that the data gathered by the OMI can benefit more than just select families – it could also be a valuable asset to researchers.

NMDID scannerAfter years of development, Edgar is ready to unveil the New Mexico Decedent Image Database website. The site will offer qualified researchers free access to more than 15,000 full body CT scans, along with corresponding information about the deceased. The database, funded by the National Institute of Justice, is hosted at the UNM Center for Advanced Research Computing

Edgar’s idea to create a decedent image database was inspired by her own work in anthropology. “As an anthropologist, I’m very interested in human variation and I thought that this would be a fantastic resource for research,” she says. The information found in the NMDID, however, will readily lend itself to the work of researchers in many different fields.

To maximize the database’s applicability to a variety of research disciplines, Edgar worked closely with Assistant Professor of Health Informatics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center Shamsi Daneshvari Berry. Berry, who completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at UNM, conducted a thorough investigation into the kinds of data sought by researchers. Berry’s project informed the development a 69-question interview script to be administered to the loved ones of deceased patients whose CT scans had been electronically stored by the OMI.

To gather needed information about the lives of these deceased patients, Edgar and her team went to painstaking lengths to contact as many next-of-kin as possible. Though asking a family member about his or her deceased loved one may sound like a daunting task, Edgar reports that most relatives were open to the idea of contributing to an important research initiative. She also acknowledges the value of a tactful and well-trained team, commenting “I had an amazing group of students doing the calling.”

The New Mexico Decedent Image Database is the first database of its kind. The innovative idea of consolidating decedent body scan images and data into an online database for research purposes has been widely praised and scientists from several other locales around the world looking into using this project as a model for their own work.

Of course, it is of vital importance that the patient information contained within the NMDID remain private. Edgar’s team included CARC specialists that ensured scans and personal information will not be identifiable by name and that unauthorized users won’t be able to access the database. “We’ve been really, really conscious of privacy protection,” Edgar explains. “We’ve put in a lot of safeguards.”

The possibilities offered by the NMDID are endless. Research in pathology, radiology, anthropology, anatomy, oncology, public health, safety, forensics, dentistry, and many other areas of study could benefit from the NMDID website. While the creators of the database can’t foresee every potential use of their tool, they can be certain that the NMDID will enable researchers to explore new avenues of study that might otherwise be impossible.