Difference Between Medical Examiners & Forensic Pathologists

The investigation into causes of death is the focus of these two related professions. The exact duties required vary and in some cases overlap. This article discusses the nuances between these medical fields.

Comparing Medical Examiners to Forensic Pathologists

The job of examining the causes of death by medical professionals varies by state in the U.S. In some states medical examiners must be licensed forensic pathologists while in other states the medical examiner is a physician who may have other duties. To work in either profession, a medical degree is required, but forensic pathologists must complete additional training and certification.

Job Title Minimum Education Required Median Salary (2017)* Job Growth (2014-2024)**
Medical Examiners Medical (professional) degree $82,500 15% (physicians and surgeons, all other)
Forensic Pathologists Medical (professional) degree $98,527 15% (physicians and surgeons, all other)

Sources: *PayScale, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of a Medical Examiner vs. a Forensic Pathologist

When a death occurs and there is suspicion of violence or unnatural causes, an investigation begins with an autopsy. Depending on the system put in place by the state, a medical examiner may be required to issue the death certificate and then refer the case to a regional or state pathology lab if an autopsy is required. The job of the medical examiner is to determine whether additional forensic analysis is warranted. Some medical examiners are also forensic pathologists and may perform the autopsy to establish the cause of death themselves.

Medical Examiner

Working with law enforcement and public health officials is the primary duty of medical examiners. In addition to reviewing the medical records of the deceased person and identifying the body, they are responsible for reporting data for specific conditions, such as Zika virus, that may have an impact on public health. The job duties vary depending on the state laws and the resources of the unit employing the medical examiner. In some cases they are mostly administrative and maintain records while in other cases they perform autopsies. In general, it is the medical examiner who determines if further forensic tests are required to establish the cause of death.

Job responsibilities of a medical examiner include:

  • Completing the death certificate
  • Communicating with family members of the deceased
  • Evaluating signs of disease
  • Removing samples from the body to be analyzed or sent to a pathologist

Forensic Pathologists

Establishing the cause of death is the primary duty of a forensic pathologist. They are responsible for evaluating evidence of violent actions, poisoning, or infection during an autopsy. This profession requires additional training beyond medical school to analyze crime scenes and microscopic samples. Training may include ballistics and toxicology which would allow them to analyze gun shot wounds or chemical substances found in the deceased's body.

Job responsibilities of a forensic pathologist include:

  • Planning specific chemical tests to use
  • Using specialized equipment to analyze tissue samples
  • Documenting evidence from autopsies in reports
  • Testifying in court

Related Careers

Other jobs that require medical knowledge include public health managers and veterinary pathologists. These professions focus more on the living than the dead, but require similar skills such as maintaining records and reporting disease trends or evaluating differences in anatomy/physiology due to illness.

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