To become a medical examiner, there are multiple degrees and certifications necessary. Students can plan to spend four years in an undergraduate degree program, four years of medical school and 3-6 years in pathology residency and fellowship programs. After completing all education and residency requirements, graduates may take the exam to earn the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) certification in pathology with a sub-specialty in forensic pathology. In total, the process can take 11 to 14 years.
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Forensic Pathology Training Program
Admission to medical school is highly competitive, and schools generally expect candidates to excel in undergraduate coursework, particularly science. Most medical schools require classes such as organic and inorganic chemistry, cell biology, human anatomy, molecular biology and biochemistry. Some schools expect medical school candidates to take additional coursework in biology, anatomy, physiology and chemistry. Prospective medical students can also participate in extra-curricular activities that lead to basic medical experience, such as volunteering in a hospital setting. When applicants apply to medical schools, they must submit MCAT scores.
Once accepted into medical school, a medical degree program typically takes four years to complete. The first two years focus on the theories and study of medicine. The final two years generally involve patient care under the supervision of a licensed physician. In order to graduate from most medical schools with a Medical Doctor (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, students must obtain satisfactory test scores on the United States Medical Licensing Examination.
Forensic pathologists perform postmortem examinations to determine the cause of death in those who have died under unexpected circumstances, violently or without obvious cause. Medical doctors interested in this specialty can apply for a residency in pathology that generally lasts 3-5 years, with rotations in various sub-fields of pathology. These sub-fields could include cytopathology, pediatric pathology, neuropathology and forensic pathology. Each rotation usually lasts three months. During the forensic pathology rotation, students can conduct autopsies and learn the fundamentals of how to determine a decedent's cause of death.
Upon completion of a residency in pathology, a fellowship can prepare the doctor for a career as a forensic pathologist. Training usually emphasizes hands-on experience in a morgue. Fellowships generally last one year and focus almost exclusively on the medical examination and analysis of deceased individuals' remains.
Throughout their fellowship training, doctors may perform upwards of 250 autopsies in an effort to become adept at distinguishing between various causes of death. They can learn to recognize disease processes that lead to death. They also typically learn to differentiate between natural and unnatural causes of death. Aside from studying the bodies of the deceased, those in a forensic pathology fellowship can also expect to work in crime and toxicology labs, interpreting their findings. Fellows may also be called upon to testify in court.
As with most residency programs, a residency in pathology is typically a wage-earning position in which doctors work in a hospital or related medical setting. Resident doctors work under the supervision of licensed physicians, and although they receive a salary, they may be expected to work upwards of 80-100 hours per week.
In lieu of formal classes with lectures and assignments, medical residents are generally expected to attend seminars and professional conferences. Topics could include:
- Cytogenics and DNA
- Gene therapy
- Brain incisions & injuries
- Forensic analysis
- Toxicology & drug lab work interpretation
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), opportunities for medical doctors are on the rise (www.bls.gov). The BLS reported that an estimated 14% increase in employment for physicians and surgeons was expected over the decade 2014-2024. In May 2015, the average annual income for physicians and surgeons was $197,700.
Certification and Continuing Education
Doctors who wish to earn their American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) certification in pathology with a sub-specialty in forensic pathology must pass the appropriate board examination administered by the ABMS. After initial board certification, doctors are expected to keep informed of current trends and developments in their specialty through continuing education opportunities and are subject to recertification to maintain their credentials every ten years.
Overall, becoming a certified forensic examiner requires more than a decade of dedicated study and experiential learning. Undergraduate students may start with broad pre-medical studies, receive general healthcare training in medical school, and then focus specifically on pathology and forensics during their residency and fellowship programs before finally taking the certification exam.