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Be a Chief Medical Examiner: Career Advancement Guide

Research the requirements to become a chief medical examiner. Learn about the duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a chief medical examiner.

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Should I Become a Chief Medical Examiner

Chief medical examiners are licensed doctors who conduct examinations on deceased persons to determine the causes of death. They can be compared to coroners, who have similar duties but are often not required to be medical doctors. A chief medical examiner is generally appointed or elected, and he or she oversees autopsy and medicolegal operations in a state or metropolitan area.

Chief medical examiners work on a full-time basis and are usually employed by a city or county government. Although the majority of their work can be completed during regular business hours, nights and weekends may be required by urgent cases that come in. Their time is split between the morgue, often in a laboratory setting, and their offices, in which they write their reports. Medical examiners spend much of their time evaluating dead bodies; chief medical examiners may spend more time managing people and their department, in addition to doing autopsies.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure and Certification Medical licensure and board certification in anatomic and/or clinical and forensic pathology
Experience Extensive experience as a medical examiner, coroner or forensic pathologist
Key Skills Problem-solving skills, interpersonal communication skills, attention to detail; spreadsheet, word processing and forensic database software; medical equipment like autopsy scissors, dissection forceps, scales and saws; manual dexterity, clinical detachment
Salary $189,760 Median for physicians and surgeons, 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Since chief medical examiners must all be medical doctors, aspiring examiners can start by getting an undergraduate degree. There is no pre-med major, but medical schools generally require a certain amount of math and science courses for admission. Undergraduate students may enroll in any major as long as they fulfill such prerequisites, and many schools offer pre-medicine programs that allow students to plan their curricula around medical school admission requirements.

Success Tips:

  • Take courses in law. An understanding of legal matters is important for a career in medical examination. Law courses may help a student comprehend the legal codes and regulations that apply to medical examiners.
  • Prepare to apply for medical school. Admission to medical school can be a highly competitive process, so aspiring medical examiners should begin preparing during undergraduate school. Medical schools look at many factors, such as extracurricular activities, when considering applicants, so students may benefit from taking part in sports, clubs and other activities. Students will also have to take the Medical College Admission Test and collect letters of reference to submit to the admissions board.

Step 2: Complete Medical School

In order to become a doctor, an individual must attend a medical school that is accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). A 4-year medical doctorate program is generally divided into two years of laboratory and classroom instruction and two years of clinical rotations. These rotations allow medical students to gain hands-on instruction in hospitals and clinics and study a wide range of medical specialties, like internal medicine, pathology and surgery.

Step 3: Gain Residency Training

Residency training is required to become a licensed doctor, and most jurisdictions require chief medical examiners to have completed postdoctoral training in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology or both. A residency program that combines anatomical and clinical pathology usually lasts four years. Residents complete clinical rotations in various specialty and subspecialty areas of pathology, such as general surgical pathology and postmortem examination.

Step 4: Obtain Licensure

All states require doctors to be licensed. Obtaining licensure involves passing a national exam, like the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination. The USMLE, for example, is comprised of three parts and includes practical and written components. Candidates are tested on a range of topics, including anatomy, surgery, diagnosis and internal medicine.

Step 5: Complete a Fellowship

Chief medical examiners are usually trained in forensic pathology, which is a specialty focused on determining causes of death. This training is usually in the form of 1-year fellowship programs. Forensic pathology fellows receive in-depth, hands-on instruction on how to conduct autopsies, and they may attend conferences in topics like microscopic neuropathology and cardiac pathology.

Step 6: Become Certified

After completing residency and fellowship programs, aspiring chief medical examiners are generally expected to become board certified in their specialty and subspecialty areas. The American Board of Pathology offers primary certification in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology and combined clinical/anatomic pathology. The board also offers subspecialty certification in forensic pathology.

Step 7: Gain Work Experience

Chief medical examiners are usually appointed to their positions as the heads of local or state government agencies. The boards of the agencies that are responsible for these appointments usually prefer job candidates to have prior work experience as medical examiners, coroners or forensic pathologists. Individuals who wish to one day become chief medical examiners can consult professional organizations, like the National Association of Medical Examiners, for these kinds of job opportunities.

Success Tip:

  • Continue your education. Doctors are generally required to maintain licensure regularly by earning continuing education credits. States usually require around 50 hours of continuing education per year. Certification boards also require certified doctors to maintain certification through continuing education.
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