Interview with Dr. Renee Higgins, COO, Administrator, Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office
What year did you start with the county Health Care Agency and what was your role?
In January 2013, I started working for the County’s Health Care Agency as the Chief Hospital Operations (CHO) for the Ambulatory Care department. My role, along with my fellow (CHO) colleague, was to oversee the operations of the county’s vast clinic system. At the time, this included public private partnership clinics which were Federally Qualified Health Centers, Specialty clinics and county campus clinics onsite at Ventura County Medical Center.
Did you come to the agency from the private sector?
Yes, I worked in the private sector as a health care administrator for many years prior to becoming a public servant. I worked in the fields of elder care, home health, home care and medical transportation. Becoming a public servant was something that I had desired to do for many years.
How (and when) did you transition to the MEO, and describe your role?
I started working for the MEO in 2015, in tandem with my role in Ambulatory Care for three years. I eventually came to work fulltime at the MEO in 2018. My current role is Chief Operating Officer for the Medical Examiner’s Office.
What’s the most gratifying part of your work?
There are many gratifying parts of my job. Being a leader in this agency is both challenging and rewarding. I was able to be a part of the counties inaugural LEAP program (Trailblazers) which honed my Servant leadership style and better prepared me to face the challenges and sorrows that the MEO faces every day. I honestly enjoy coming to work each day and being a part of a team that cares so much about their jobs. Our team has integrity and strength. People do not necessarily want to encounter our office; we interact with individuals on the worst days of their lives. If I can help a family member either directly or indirectly, in some way during this time of grief, it is very gratifying.
What are your observations about the increase in overdose deaths in your time with the MEO?
Out of the four manners of death: Natural, Accident, Suicide and Homicide, I recall when natural deaths accounted for most of the deaths in our jurisdiction annually. This has been replaced by Accidental deaths mainly due to the opioid crisis. I recall when the drug fentanyl was a problem on the periphery of our county, but we knew it was coming. The good thing is, we had the COAST and Rx Drug and Heroin Work Group teams already in place to help combat this dangerous drug when it hit our county. These collaborative teams led by Behavioral Health and composed of many partners, have been key in strategizing prevention initiatives to combat this crisis. A few observations are that the opioid crisis does not discriminate. It crosses all socioeconomic, race and ethnic lines. Also, the drug fentanyl can come in many forms, our Chief Medical Examiner called it “the great imitator” thus, a person taking the drug may not even be aware of it. Very concerning.
What would you like people to know about the work done at the MEO? What might surprise people?
For one thing, our work helps the living. The findings learned from the work of our investigators and forensic pathologists can contribute to public health questions and offer insight into medical practice and specific disease processes that otherwise would not be explored. A wealth of data is generated by our office. We were selected along with five other counties in the state to partner with CDPH to provide data on violent deaths as well as overdose deaths in real time. This data is sent to the state within 30 days of death. This helps to provide information that can be analyzed earlier to see trends and plan prevention strategies. In order to prevent deaths in our county, we have to accurately identify what is causing the deaths.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I am honored to work for the County of Ventura and more specifically the Medical Examiner’s Office. I recently was sworn into the California State Coroner’s Association as a board member. Although Ventura County is only one of six Medical Examiner systems in our state of 58 counties, this board represents all three types of forensic death investigation offices: Medical Examiner, Coroner, and Sheriff/Coroner. Working together to ensure best practices and representing the ME systems in our state is an honor.