What is a Medical Examiner?

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A medical examiner (often also referred to as a forensic medical examiner) is a medical doctor who is responsible for examining bodies post mortem to determine the cause of death. These professionals are trained forensic pathologists who are called upon to investigate all deaths that may affect the public interest. As such, they must determine the cause, the manner of death, and the circumstances surrounding the death of an individual.

Because medical examiners are forensic pathologists, they are skilled and trained to study the tissues, organs, cells, and bodily fluids of the deceased and evaluate the gathered data to determine the cause of death. Medical examiners may also assist in violent crime examinations, such as rape examinations, even if the crime didn’t end in death, as they often have expertise in such areas as DNA and blood analyses.

Although much of a medical examiner’s job is performed in the laboratory, these professionals may also visit the crime scene and testify to their findings in court. Medical examiners also study trends and compile reports regarding their investigations.

What is Forensic Pathology?

Medical examiners are pathologists, physicians trained in the medical specialty of pathology, a branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis of disease and causes of death through laboratory examination.

Forensic pathologists have specialized knowledge in forensics, which involves the examination of persons who die unexpected, violent, or sudden deaths. As such, the forensic pathologist is an expert in determining the cause and manner of death.

Forensic pathologist jobs involve being specially trained to:

  • Perform autopsies
  • Evaluate historical and law-enforcement investigative information
  • Collect medical evidence
  • Document sexual assault
  • Reconstruct a cause of death

In addition to traditional medical training, forensic pathologists are also trained in the areas of toxicology, wound ballistics, trace evidence, DNA technology, and forensic serology.

Medical Examiners vs. Coroners

The titles medical examiner and coroner are often interchanged; however, they are two distinctly different professions. Medical examiners and coroners have different training, different job responsibilities, and different employment avenues.

For example, coroners are elected officials who may or may not have medical training, while medical examiners possess well-defined medical backgrounds. Coroners have the authority to convene a court to determine a cause of death, and they often call on medical examiners to complete the post-mortem examinations.

Many medical examiners work in the government sectors, where they are usually appointed, while others work for hospitals and medical schools. Coroners generally work for law enforcement agencies on a contract basis.

The Job of a Medical Examiner

Medical examiners, during an autopsy, must accomplish a number of goals through keen observation. Through an extensive, post-mortem examination, medical examiners meticulously search for clues, both through an internal investigation and through an investigation of the body’s surface, and record all obtained information.

Fluids, tissues and other samples are removed and examined through microscopic work, while other samples are biopsied. Through the analysis of acquired data, medical examiners are often able to determine an individual’s cause of death.

The job of a medical examiner includes:

  • Investigating sudden and unnatural deaths
  • Performing forensic medicine and pathology consultations
  • Counseling families regarding the manners and causes of death
  • Testifying in courts regarding autopsies and the results of the autopsies
  • Conducting physical examinations and laboratory tests resulting from court or district attorney requests
  • Conducting inquests and serving subpoenas for witnesses

Education and Licensure Requirements for Medical Examiners

Medical examiners, because they are medical doctors, must meet a specific set of professional standards and competencies and must be licensed to practice.

According to the Department of Labor, medical examiners must:

  1. Graduate from an accredited college or university with a bachelor’s degree in one of the sciences, while focusing their curriculum on such areas as anatomy, cell biology and statistics
  2. Graduate from an accredited medical school
  3. Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  4. Complete a course of graduate medical education in pathologic forensic training. This often includes training in anatomic and clinical pathology (usually 4 or 5 years), followed a residency in anatomic pathology or fellowship in forensic pathology (usually 1 year).
  5. Pass an examination and receive certification in anatomic pathology and forensic pathology through the American Board of Pathology (or anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, and forensic pathology)

Medical examiners often achieve employment through an appointment by a chief medical examiner, and they may be nominated by a local medical society.

Salary Statistics for Medical Examiners

Although there are no readily available statistics for medical examiners available, salary ranges for these medical professionals can be found by reviewing recent job listings:

  • Virginia:  $75,387-$154,719
  • Georgia:  $139,230-$162,792
  • California (San Francisco, Assistant Medical Examiner):  $185,848-$261,534
  • Nevada (Las Vegas):  $119,870-$185,785
  • New York:  $147,857
  • Texas:  $174,627

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