The Difference Between a Coroner & a Forensic Pathologist

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TV shows and movies seem to use the terms “coroner” and “forensic pathologist” interchangeably. In real life, they’re very different positions. If you work with them, or if you’re considering becoming one or the other, it’s important to know the distinctions between the two. While there can be some overlap in function, the job focus of each position is vastly different.

Coroner

A coroner holds an elected office and may or may not have a medical background. Individual rules regarding background requirements for potential coroners are determined by each jurisdiction, and are variable. Some coroners may have medical backgrounds, while others may have law enforcement backgrounds -- or both. Coroners may also have funeral home backgrounds. A coroner can call for an inquest into the manner of someone’s death. If an individual coroner does not have the medical skills necessary to investigate, she can assign a doctor to examine the body and prepare a report. Coroners may also have certain legal powers depending on the jurisdiction -- including subpoena power.

Forensic Pathologist

Forensic pathologists have strong medical backgrounds, and may or may not be part of law enforcement. They’re also commonly called medical examiners, or MEs. Many times, they’re kept separate from law enforcement to encourage a degree of objectivity in their medical investigations. Most medical examiners are appointed to their positions rather than elected. Many forensic pathologists receive board certification before being appointed to positions.

Overlapping Duties

Both coroners and forensic pathologists can order forensic autopsies, and both positions are interested in finding the true causes of death in people. Some jurisdictions have only a coroner or a forensic pathologist, rather than both. The coroner system comes from a centuries-old English tradition, while the medical examiner system is wholly American and hasn’t been around as long.

Considerations

Forensic pathologists may have other medical specialties besides forensic pathology. Meanwhile, coroners may specialize in the legal paperwork and law enforcement side of a death. In a jurisdiction where a coroner and a forensic pathologist work together, a system of checks and balances can be maintained. However, in a jurisdiction where there’s only one or the other, it’s possible that results may be obtained more quickly because of less paperwork. As professions, which career goal you set for yourself depends largely on whether you’re more interested in the medical or law enforcement issues regarding death.