Doctors are warning a major disaster with a large death toll would be dire for the country's stretched forensic pathology service.

Those who make up the country's specialist autopsy unit say they are stretched to the limit and would struggle to cope if another earthquake or disaster as lethal as Christchurch struck today.

The six medical forensic specialists have spoken out in the latest Association of Salaried Medical Specialists magazine saying the National Forensic Pathology Service is critically understaffed and if something doesn't change autopsies won't get done.

"They say they are so stretched already that shouldering the extra workload associated with a natural disaster, or any other major disaster for that matter, would be almost unthinkable," said the association's executive director Ian Powell.


"We're talking about a small but critical public health service provided by a team of highly skilled senior doctors. This should be of serious concern to the Government and the situation obviously requires urgent action."

Six forensic pathologists make up the unit, providing a round-the-clock service to police, coroners and the public. They do about 1600 post mortems examinations each year. Around 190 are murders or suspicious deaths.

Three forensic pathologists have said they are barely coping with the workload.

"We're managing at the moment but our ability to do so is razor thin," a pathologist tells the magazine.

They say at least three more pathologists are needed to bring the workload to more manageable levels.

Unless staffing was bolstered there would be delays for families and hold-ups with processing cases through the justice system.

Powell said the Government needed to make sure the concerns raised about staffing were adequately addressed.

"We don't want to wait until a major disaster to find out that actually we don't have the people and resources we need to cope."