Autopsy Nurse: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Autopsy nurses require a significant amount of formal education. Learn about the education, job duties and licensure to see if this is the right career for you.

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If you are interested in a career as an autopsy nurse, you will first need to be a registered nurse, and then you may be required to take courses, earn a graduate certificate, or attain a master's degree in forensic nursing. Autopsy nurses work in morgues with coroners or medical examiners, and may be called to the scene of a death where they interact with other law enforcement officials.

Essential Information

An autopsy nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who specializes in forensic nursing and assists the coroner or medical examiner in death investigations. Their responsibilities vary based on jurisdiction, but they may respond to the scene of a crime or accident and may document physical and biological evidence. Employers may require that candidates possess a graduate certificate or master's degree in forensic nursing or a related field.

Required Education In addition to becoming a registered nurse through an accredited program, a graduate degree or certificate in forensic nursing or a related field is recommended
Other Requirements Licensure as a registered nurse
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 16% (registered nurses)*
Median Salary (2015) $67,490 (registered nurses)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description of an Autopsy Nurse

Autopsy nurses, also known as forensic nurse investigators or death investigators, work alone or with a coroner or medical examiner to determine the cause of death. During autopsies, nurses examine the deceased person to identify and document any injuries to the body. Nurses may also collect evidence and record information to aid in the death investigation. Since autopsies are usually conducted for violent, traumatic, unexplained, or unexpected deaths, forensic nurses may need to respond to the scene of the death and interact with law enforcement officials.

Job Duties of an Autopsy Nurse

The responsibilities of autopsy nurses vary from one jurisdiction to the next, depending on whether a coroner, medical examiner, or other medical official is in charge of death investigations. On-call nurse investigators responding to the scene of a crime or accident may serve as the medical expert who pronounces death, as well as arranges for transport of the victim to the morgue. Nurse investigators work with other crime scene investigators to collect and document physical and biological evidence with photographs, samples, and written records.

During an autopsy, death investigators take photographs and note symptoms of illness, trauma, or bodily injury. Nurse investigators also collect blood or tissue samples for lab analysis, and may notify the victim's next of kin. In some cases, forensic nurses may be asked to testify in court to help determine legal responsibility for death.

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Requirements of an Autopsy Nurse

Aspiring autopsy nurses must first become RNs. As such, prospective candidates need to earn a nursing diploma, associate's, or bachelor's degree and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become licensed (www.ncsbn.org). Professional organizations like the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) and the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) recommend that prospective autopsy practitioners review local, state, and federal laws, as well as contact their state nursing board's because regulations vary widely.

Educational Requirements

In some areas, forensic nursing elective courses or continuing education credits, in addition to RN licensing, may be sufficient to become an autopsy nurse. Other locations may prefer job seekers who have completed graduate certificate or master's degree programs in forensic nursing or a related field. Programs may explore topics in death investigation, crime scene investigation, injury or abuse investigation, and medical law. Master's degree programs may offer supplemental classes in forensic nursing, criminal law, and evidence collection.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide information specific to autopsy nurses, it does publish salary and career outlook data for registered nurses. According to the BLS in May 2015, the median annual salary earned by RNs was reported as $67,490. The employment of all types of registered nurses, including autopsy nurses, is expected to grow by about 16% between 2014 and 2024, per the BLS.

Autopsy nurses assist medical examiners or coroners in their examination of the body of a deceased person to determine the cause of death. Their work varies, from pronouncing a death at the scene, to arranging for transport, collecting evidence, taking photographs, identifying next of kin, and possibly testifying in court. Job opportunities for all registered nurses, including those working on autopsies, are expected to rise by 16% through the year 2024.

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