What does a medical examiner do?

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What is a Medical Examiner?

A medical examiner is a licensed physician who is appointed or elected to investigate deaths within a particular jurisdiction, typically at the county or state level. While forensic pathologists often serve as medical examiners, medical examiners can come from various medical specialties, including pathology, internal medicine, emergency medicine, or surgery. Their primary responsibility is to determine the cause and manner of death in cases that fall under their jurisdiction.

Medical examiners may oversee autopsies performed by forensic pathologists or other trained personnel to gather additional evidence and insights into the cause of death. Additionally, they document their findings in official reports and may testify in court proceedings to provide expert opinions on matters related to death investigation.

What does a Medical Examiner do?

A covered body being prepared for an autopsy.

Duties and Responsibilities
The duties and responsibilities of a medical examiner can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific regulations governing death investigation in that area. However, some common duties and responsibilities of medical examiners include:

  • Death Investigation: Medical examiners are responsible for investigating deaths that fall under their jurisdiction, including those that are sudden, unexpected, or suspicious. They gather information about the circumstances surrounding the death, review medical records, interview witnesses and family members, and collaborate with law enforcement agencies to determine the cause and manner of death.
  • Death Certification: Medical examiners certify the cause and manner of death on death certificates based on their investigation and findings. The cause of death refers to the underlying disease or condition that directly led to the individual's demise, while the manner of death categorizes the circumstances under which the death occurred, such as natural, accident, homicide, suicide, or undetermined.
  • Autopsy Authorization: In cases where further examination is required to determine the cause of death, medical examiners may authorize autopsies to be performed by forensic pathologists or other qualified personnel. They oversee the autopsy process, review autopsy reports, and incorporate the findings into their investigation to establish the cause and manner of death accurately.
  • Documentation and Reporting: Medical examiners document their investigation findings, autopsy results, and conclusions in official reports and records. These reports serve as legal documents and may be used as evidence in criminal investigations, civil lawsuits, insurance claims, and other legal proceedings. Medical examiners must ensure accuracy, thoroughness, and compliance with relevant regulations and protocols in their documentation.
  • Court Testimony: Medical examiners may be called upon to testify in court proceedings as expert witnesses to provide testimony regarding their investigation findings, autopsy results, and conclusions about the cause and manner of death. They must communicate their findings clearly and accurately and be prepared to answer questions from attorneys, judges, and jurors.

Types of Medical Examiners
Medical examiners may hold various positions and specialize in different aspects of death investigation and public health. Some types of medical examiners include:

  • Coroner: In some jurisdictions, coroners serve as the primary death investigation authorities instead of medical examiners. Coroners may be elected or appointed officials with varying levels of medical training or forensic expertise. While coroners may not always be licensed physicians, they often work closely with forensic pathologists or medical examiners to conduct death investigations and make determinations about the cause and manner of death. The responsibilities and authority of coroners can differ significantly depending on state and local laws.
  • County Medical Examiner: County medical examiners are appointed or elected officials responsible for overseeing death investigations within a specific county jurisdiction. They typically work in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies and government officials to determine the cause and manner of death in cases falling under their purview. County medical examiners may have a team of forensic pathologists, investigators, and administrative staff to assist in conducting death investigations and managing their office operations.
  • Forensic Pathologist: While forensic pathologists primarily specialize in performing autopsies and conducting post-mortem examinations to determine the cause and manner of death, they may also serve as medical examiners in some jurisdictions. Forensic pathologists typically work in medical examiner's offices, forensic laboratories, or academic institutions and may collaborate with medical examiner investigators and administrative staff to complete death investigations and provide expert testimony in legal proceedings.
  • State Medical Examiner: State medical examiners oversee death investigations at the state level and may have jurisdiction over multiple counties within their state. They coordinate with county medical examiners and other agencies to ensure consistency and standardization in death investigation practices across the state. State medical examiners may also provide training and support to county medical examiners, assist in high-profile or complex cases, and oversee the operation of state forensic laboratories or morgue facilities.

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What is the workplace of a Medical Examiner like?

The workplace of a medical examiner typically includes a variety of settings where death investigations are conducted, autopsy examinations are performed, and administrative tasks related to death certification and reporting are carried out. One primary component of the medical examiner's workplace is the forensic pathology laboratory or morgue, where autopsies are conducted to determine the cause and manner of death. This facility is equipped with specialized equipment and instrumentation for post-mortem examinations, including examination tables, surgical tools, imaging equipment, and forensic laboratory equipment for toxicology, histology, and microbiology analyses.

In addition to the forensic pathology laboratory, the medical examiner's workplace may include administrative offices where staff members handle case management, record-keeping, and communication with law enforcement agencies, healthcare providers, and legal authorities. Administrative tasks may involve reviewing medical records, completing death certificates, generating reports, coordinating with other agencies involved in death investigation, and responding to inquiries from the public or media. The administrative workspace may also include meeting rooms for case conferences, training sessions, and collaborative discussions with colleagues.

Medical examiners may also have a presence in various external locations, such as crime scenes, hospitals, nursing homes, and courtrooms, where they may be required to conduct death investigations, testify in legal proceedings, or provide expert consultation. Medical examiners often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, to respond to emergencies, conduct autopsies, and address the needs of ongoing death investigations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Doctor Specializations and Degrees

The following is a comprehensive list of the various specializations that a doctor can pursue and a brief summary of each specialization:

  • Allergist: An allergist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, asthma, and related conditions. Allergists have specialized training in the recognition and management of allergic reactions.
  • Anesthesiologist: An anesthesiologist keeps a patient comfortable, safe and pain-free during surgery by administering local or general anesthetic.
  • Cardiologist: A cardiologist specializes in finding, treating, and preventing diseases that affect the heart, the arteries, and the veins.
  • Cardiothoracic Surgeon: A cardiothoracic surgeon specializes in surgical procedures inside the thorax (the chest), which may involve the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest. As well as performing surgery, they also diagnose and treat diseases of these organs.
  • Chiropractic Neurologist: A chiropractic neurologist is a specialized type of chiropractor who has undergone additional training in the field of neurology. They diagnose and treat conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system.
  • Chiropractor: A chiropractor, or doctor of chiropractic medicine, specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the musculoskeletal and nervous system, especially in the spine. Treatment is usually physical manipulation of the joints and the spine to bring them back into alignment. A chiropractor does not perform surgery or prescribe medication.
  • Colorectal Surgeon: A colorectal surgeon specializes in diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus, as well as the entire gastric tract. These surgeons work closely with urologists, who handle the urogenital tract in males and the urinary tract of women, gynecologists, who deal with specific female issues, and gastroenterologists, who deal with diseases of the gut.
  • Doctor: An general overview of what a doctor does and how to become one.
  • Dentist: Dentists identify potential oral health issues such as gum disease, as well as examine patients, order medical tests and determine the correct diagnosis and treatment. They also perform oral surgery and remove teeth or address other dental health problems.
  • Dermatologist: A dermatologist specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions affecting skin, hair, sweat and oil glands, nails, and mucus membranes (inside the mouth, nose, and eyelids) which can include cancer.
  • Emergency Medicine Physician: An emergency medicine physician works in emergency departments, hospitals, and urgent care clinics, and is often the first medical professional that patients see when they are in need of urgent medical care.
  • Endocrinologist: An endocrinologist specializes in diagnosing conditions and diseases related to the glands and hormones. While primary care doctors know a lot about the human body, for conditions and diseases directly related to glands and hormones they will typically send a patient to an endocrinologist.
  • Family Practitioner: A family practitioner specializes in caring for the entire family. Patients can be children, adults, and the elderly, and are treated for a wide array of medical issues.
  • Forensic Pathologist: A forensic pathologist investigates the cause of sudden and unexpected deaths, and is able to determine how a person died by performing an autopsy and studying tissue and laboratory results. These doctors are often called upon to provide evidence in court regarding the cause and time of such deaths.
  • Gastroenterologist: A gastroenterologist has specific training in diagnosing and treating conditions and diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This may include diseases and disorders that affect the the biliary system (liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and bile ducts), as well as the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon).
  • Geriatrician: A geriatrician specializes in the care of elderly patients, and often works with patients who have multiple chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as age-related cognitive and functional impairments.
  • Gynecologist: A gynecologist specializes in women's reproductive systems. Gynecologists are also sometimes certified as obstetricians, and will monitor the health of the mother and the fetus during a pregnancy.
  • Hematologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of blood disorders, such as anemia and leukemia.
  • Hospitalist: A hospitalist is a physician whose focus is the general medical care of hospitalized patients. Their duties include patient care, teaching, research, and leadership related to hospital medicine.
  • Immunologist: An immunologist specializes in managing problems related to the immune system, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases. A smaller number of immunologists are strictly researchers seeking to better understand how the immune system works and to help develop better ways of diagnosing and providing treatment for many immunological conditions.
  • Infectious Disease Specialist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.
  • Internist: An internist is a 'doctor of internal medicine' who can diagnose, treat, and practice compassionate care for adults across the spectrum, from health to complex illness. They are not to be mistaken with "interns," who are doctors in their first year of residency training.
  • Medical Examiner: Medical examiners are responsible for performing autopsies and collecting evidence related to the circumstances of a death, including medical history, physical examination findings, and toxicology tests.
  • Naturopathic Physician: A naturopathic physician blends modern scientific medical practice and knowledge with natural and traditional forms of medical treatment. The goal is to treat the underlying causes of disease while stimulating the body's own healing abilities.
  • Nephrologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases. They treat conditions such as chronic kidney disease, acute kidney injury, kidney stones, hypertension, and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Neurologist: A neurologist specializes in treating diseases that affect the human nervous system. It is a very prestigious and difficult medical specialty due to the complexity of the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.
  • Neurosurgeon: A neurosurgeon specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system. This includes congenital anomalies, trauma, tumours, vascular disorders, infections of the brain or spine, stroke, or degenerative diseases of the spine.
  • Obstetrician: An obstetrician is a medical doctor who specializes in caring for women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period.
  • Occupational Physician: Occupational medicine is focused on keeping individuals well at work, both mentally and physically. As workplaces become more complex, occupational physicians play an important role in advising people on how their work can affect their health.
  • Oncologist: An oncologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The three primary types of oncologists are: medical oncologists that specialize in the administration of drugs to kill cancer cells; surgical oncologists that perform surgical procedures to identify and remove cancerous tumors; and radiation oncologists that treat cancer with radiation therapy.
  • Ophthalmologist: An ophthalmologist is a specialist that deals specifically with the structure, function, diseases, and treatment of the eye. Due to the complexities and the importance of the eye as a special sense that provides vision, the discipline of ophthalmology is dedicated solely to this organ.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon: An oral and maxillofacial surgeon treats dental and medical problems involving the oral cavity and the maxillofacial area. The maxillofacial area includes the bones of the forehead, face, cheekbones and the soft tissues. Treatment often involves performing surgery and related procedures to treat diseases, defects, or injuries, and to improve function or appearance.
  • Orthodontist: An orthodontist specializes in how the jaws and teeth are aligned. They help people whose teeth are misaligned or require some kind of correction – those with an improper bite, or malocclusion.
  • Orthopedic Surgeon / Orthopedist: An orthopaedic surgeon (or orthopedist) examines, diagnoses, and treats diseases and injuries of the musculoskeletal system. This system includes the bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and nerves.
  • Osteopath: Osteopaths have attended and graduated from an osteopathic medical school and practise the system of healthcare known as osteopathy. They consider all aspects of the patient, not just the symptoms they exhibit. They see the integrated nature of the body’s organ systems and its capacity for self-regulation and self-healing.
  • Otolaryngologist: Otolaryngologists (or ENT physicians) are specialists trained in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, throat (ENT), and related structures of the head and neck. These specialists are trained in both medicine and surgery.
  • Pathologist: A pathologist studies the causes, nature, and effects of disease. The field of pathology is broad with concentrations on changes in cells, tissues, and organs that are the result of a disease.
  • Pediatrician: A pediatrician specializes in providing medical care to infants, children and teenagers by administering treatments, therapies, medications and vaccinations to treat illness, disorders or injuries.
  • Periodontist: A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in oral inflammation, and who knows how to prevent, diagnose, and treat periodontal disease.
  • Plastic Surgeon: A plastic surgeon specializes in reshaping healthy body parts for aesthetic reasons, and also in repairing or replacing body parts damaged by accidents, illness or malformation.
  • Podiatrist: A podiatrist practices podiatric medicine, which is a branch of science devoted to the diagnosis, treatment and study of medical disorders of the foot, ankle, lower leg and lower back. In the U.S. and Canada, podiatry is practiced as a specialty.
  • Prosthodontist: A prosthodontist specializes in restoring the look, function, comfort, and health of a patient's oral cavity with artificial materials. These artificial materials are made up of a wide variety of restorations that include fillings, dentures, veneers, crowns, bridges and oral implants.
  • Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are physicians who evaluate, diagnose and treat patients who are affected by a temporary or chronic mental health problem.
  • Pulmonologist: A pulmonologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary (lung) conditions and diseases of the chest, particularly pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, emphysema, and complicated chest infections.
  • Radiologist: A radiologist is a specialist in interpreting medical images that may be obtained with x-rays, (CT scans or radiographs), nuclear medicine (involving radioactive substances, magnetism (MRI), or ultrasound.
  • Rheumatologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Sports Medicine Physician: A sports medicine physician specializes in taking care of people who have sports injuries that may be acquired from playing sports, exercising, or from otherwise being physically active.
  • Surgeon: A surgeon performs surgery for the purpose of removing diseased tissue or organs, to repair body systems, or to replace diseased organs with transplants.
  • Telemedicine Physician: A telemedicine physician provides remote healthcare services to patients using telecommunications technology, facilitating virtual consultations, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations.
  • Urologist: A urologist specializes in the treatment of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs. Urologists can treat the kidneys, urinary bladder, urethra, uterus, and male reproductive organs. There are also specific specialty areas that urologists may choose to focus on, such as pediatric urology, male infertility, and urologic oncology.
  • Vascular Medicine Specialist - A vascular medicine specialist specializes in the diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of conditions affecting the blood vessels. They may work with patients who have conditions such as deep vein thrombosis, peripheral artery disease, or pulmonary embolism.
  • Vascular Surgeon - A vascular surgeon specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of conditions affecting the blood vessels, including aneurysms, peripheral artery disease, and varicose veins.
  • Veterinary Dentist - A veterinary dentist is a specialized veterinarian who focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of dental diseases and conditions in animals. They perform dental procedures such as cleanings, extractions, and oral surgeries to improve the oral health and well-being of pets and other animals.


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Doctor Allergist Anesthesiologist Cardiologist Cardiothoracic Surgeon Chiropractor Colorectal Surgeon Dentist Dermatologist Emergency Medicine Physician Endocrinologist Family Practitioner Forensic Pathologist Gastroenterologist Geriatrician Gynecologist Hematologist Hospitalist Immunologist Infectious Disease Specialist Internist Naturopathic Physician Nephrologist Neurologist Neurosurgeon Obstetrician Occupational Physician Oncologist Ophthalmologist Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon Orthopedic Surgeon Orthopedist Orthodontist Osteopath Otolaryngologist Pathologist Pediatrician Periodontist Plastic Surgeon Podiatrist Prosthodontist Psychiatrist Pulmonologist Radiologist Rheumatologist Sports Medicine Physician Surgeon Urologist Vascular Medicine Specialist Vascular Surgeon Chiropractic Neurologist Veterinary Dentist Telemedicine Physician

Medical Examiner vs Forensic Pathologist

While both medical examiners and forensic pathologists are involved in the investigation of deaths, there are distinctions between the two roles in terms of their qualifications, responsibilities, and focus.

Medical Examiner
A medical examiner is a government-appointed or elected official responsible for overseeing death investigations within a specific jurisdiction, such as a county or state. While medical examiners may have a background in forensic pathology, they can also come from other medical specialties, such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, or surgery. Medical examiners oversee death investigations conducted by forensic pathologists and other personnel, review autopsy reports, certify the cause and manner of death, and coordinate with law enforcement agencies, coroners, and other stakeholders involved in death investigation. Medical examiners may also have administrative responsibilities related to managing their office, coordinating resources, and ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

Forensic Pathologist
A forensic pathologist is a physician who specializes in the examination of deceased individuals to determine the cause and manner of death, particularly in cases involving suspicious, unexpected, or violent circumstances. Forensic pathologists undergo specialized training in forensic pathology during their medical education and residency training. They are experts in performing autopsies, conducting post-mortem examinations, analyzing medical and forensic evidence, and providing expert testimony in legal proceedings. Forensic pathologists typically work in medical examiner's offices, forensic laboratories, or academic institutions, where they play a central role in death investigation and forensic science.

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Medical Examiner vs Coroner

Medical examiners and coroners are both involved in the investigation of deaths, but there are key differences between the two roles in terms of qualifications, responsibilities, and jurisdiction.

Medical Examiner
A medical examiner is a licensed physician, often board-certified in forensic pathology, who is appointed or employed to conduct investigations into deaths that fall under their jurisdiction. Medical examiners are trained in medicine and forensic pathology and have the authority to perform autopsies, review medical records, and determine the cause and manner of death based on their findings. They may work in medical examiner's offices at the county or state level and collaborate closely with law enforcement agencies, forensic specialists, and legal authorities to conduct thorough death investigations and provide expert testimony in legal proceedings.

A coroner may or may not have a medical background and is often an elected or appointed official responsible for overseeing death investigations within a specific jurisdiction, such as a county. Coroners may have varying levels of medical training or forensic expertise and may not necessarily be licensed physicians or forensic pathologists. While some coroners may have medical qualifications, others may come from diverse backgrounds, such as law enforcement, public administration, or emergency services. Coroners may work independently or in conjunction with medical examiners to investigate deaths, issue death certificates, and make determinations about the cause and manner of death based on available evidence and resources.

In summary, the primary distinction between a medical examiner and a coroner lies in their qualifications and authority to conduct death investigations. Medical examiners are typically licensed physicians with specialized training in forensic pathology, while coroners may have diverse backgrounds and may or may not have medical qualifications.

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