You've seen them on TV crime shows and legal dramas. A medical examiner is a physician who examines a body post mortem, or after death, to determine the cause of death when there appeara to be unusual or suspicious circumstances.
Medical examiners provide information to those affected by sudden, violent or traumatic deaths. They work with family members, funeral homes, public health agencies and law enforcement to determine the cause of death and whether a crime has been committed. On television, the life of a medical examiner is full of drama and suspense. In reality, the job involves more than traveling to crime scenes and performing autopsies, although these are important components of the job. Medical examiners may take x-rays and photographs, analyze body fluids and remove organs to examine and weigh them. Medical examiners must keep meticulous records of patient medical histories and autopsy results. In most jurisdictions, medical examiners are the professionals who issue death certificates. At times, the work can be gruesome. It can be isolating, as medical examiners typically work with a small staff. The job can be stressful, particularly when dealing with a family that has suffered a traumatic loss.
What is the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner?
Not every jurisdiction uses the same system. Some jurisdictions use coroners; some use medical examiners; and, some have an office that includes both. Usually, coroners are elected and they do not have to be medical doctors. Medical examiners are usually appointed. They must be physicians, although they do not have to be trained or certified as pathologists or forensic pathologists. A state may choose to centralize its system, using one state office, but may decentralize its system, meaning that coroners and medical examiners are controlled by county or regional offices.
There is no medical examiner school. Professional training to become a medical examiner begins with medical school, which is four years of intensive study after the bachelor's degree. Medical school admissions are very competitive. Although there is no formal requirement for a major, successful applicants generally have a grade point average of 3.61 or higher and a solid foundation in the life sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and psychology. Typically, medical schools require a score of 510 or higher on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). In addition, medical schools want to see three strong letters of recommendation that attest to a candidate's academic achievement, work ethic and fitness for a career in the medical profession.
After medical school, physicians must obtain licensure and then complete a residency in their chosen specialty. There is no residency that specifically provides a medical examiner education. Physicians can complete a residency in pathology, preferably one with a focus on autopsies and medical forensics. Many pathologists then choose to pursue an additional year of training through a medical examiner fellowship, offered through a government-run medical examiner's office.
Medical examiners work in laboratories for government agencies, medical schools, hospitals and morgues. They may travel to crime scenes, to consult with law enforcement and medical professionals, and then they may be called upon to provide testimony in court.
Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data and makes employment projections for jobs in all civilian industries. Although the Bureau does not forecast by medical specialties, the job outlook for all physicians and surgeons is expected to remain strong, with a 13 percent growth rate through 2026. This rate is faster than average when compared to all other jobs.
A medical examiner salary in the U.S. averages $79,500 per year, with a range between $30,201 and $194,385. Employer, geographic location and years of experience are factors affecting medical examiner income.