History
Fact-checked

At HistoricalIndex, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is the Difference Between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner?

Coroners and Medical Examiners both play crucial roles in death investigations, but they differ in their qualifications and duties. Coroners are often elected officials, sometimes without medical training, while Medical Examiners are typically appointed and must be forensic pathologists. Understanding their distinct functions helps us appreciate the intricacies of forensic science. How might these roles impact justice in your community?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Coroners and medical examiners both deal with death, and the two titles are often used interchangeably as a result. This usage is technically incorrect, since the job descriptions are actually very different. The qualifications for becoming a medical examiner are radically more strenuous than those for becoming a coroner, and the two go about their jobs in very different ways.

A medical examiner is a licensed physician who specializes in forensic pathology. When a death merits an autopsy, this medical professional performs the autopsy and records the findings. Although they form an important part of a law enforcement team, they do not necessarily decide the course of an investigation or prosecution of a suspect. Because a medical examiner's job is based on professional skill, he or she is an appointed official.

Medical examiners perform the autopsies.
Medical examiners perform the autopsies.

The profession dates back to the early 1900s, when urban areas began to recognize the need for full time, qualified physicians to determine cause of death. In order to become a medical examiner, someone must go through the process of medical school, becoming a doctor and completing a residency in forensic pathology. Once the physician successfully qualifies, he or she can apply for the position as a medical examiner. Since a medical examiner's office may employ multiple physicians, it is not uncommon to see several working together under the supervision of a chief.

Coroners handle the investigation of the deceased.
Coroners handle the investigation of the deceased.

A coroner is an elected official. In order to serve in this job, someone must typically be a resident of the region in which he or she works, and the candidate must also be of voting age. In some areas, the office is bundled with that of sheriff to conserve community resources. Coroners collect decedents and lead investigations into cause of death, contracting physicians to perform the actual medical examination. In a way, this person advocates for the dead, ensuring that the case is handled respectfully and efficiently.

Medical examiners perform autopsies.
Medical examiners perform autopsies.

The coroner system dates back several centuries. In England, this official confirmed the deaths of citizens in his jurisdiction, and collected the Crown's share of the estate. If necessary, he might lead an inquest to determine the cause of death, and to identify suspects if someone was murdered. Originally, the position was known as “crowner,” a reference to his primary function, serving the crown. Such people are responsible for collecting and identifying bodies, completing death certificates, and working with the survivors of the deceased. They may also be physicians, especially in rural areas with minimal resources, but medical experience is not required.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the primary differences between a coroner and a medical examiner?

Medical examiners may work closely with pathologists to confirm if disease caused the death.
Medical examiners may work closely with pathologists to confirm if disease caused the death.

A coroner is often an elected official who may not have a medical background, while a medical examiner is typically a licensed physician with specialized training in forensic pathology. Coroners are responsible for determining the cause and manner of death, often with the assistance of a forensic pathologist, whereas medical examiners conduct autopsies and have the medical expertise to analyze the findings directly.

Is a medical examiner always a doctor?

A medical examiner is a licensed physician who specializes in forensic pathology.
A medical examiner is a licensed physician who specializes in forensic pathology.

Yes, a medical examiner is always a doctor, specifically a licensed physician. They usually have additional training in forensic pathology, which equips them to perform autopsies and determine the medical causes of death. This specialized knowledge is crucial for investigating deaths that are sudden, violent, or unexplained.

Can a coroner order an autopsy, and if so, under what circumstances?

A medical examiner's findings may be particularly beneficial in cases involving a sudden death.
A medical examiner's findings may be particularly beneficial in cases involving a sudden death.

A coroner can order an autopsy when the cause of death is unclear, suspicious, or due to unnatural causes. The decision to perform an autopsy is made to determine the cause and manner of death, which can be essential for legal and health statistics purposes. In some jurisdictions, autopsies are mandatory for certain types of deaths, such as homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and deaths without a clear medical history.

How does the role of a coroner or medical examiner impact legal proceedings?

The findings of a coroner or medical examiner can be pivotal in legal proceedings. Their determination of the cause and manner of death can influence criminal investigations, inform the decision to press charges, and provide critical evidence in court. In cases of wrongful death, their reports can also be central to civil litigation. Their expertise ensures that justice is served based on accurate and scientific death investigation.

Are there any certification or training requirements for coroners and medical examiners?

Medical examiners are required to be licensed physicians and often need board certification in forensic pathology. According to the American Board of Pathology, this involves completing a residency in pathology and a fellowship in forensic pathology. Coroners, on the other hand, may not have medical degrees, but some states require them to receive training or certification, which varies widely by jurisdiction. For example, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators offers certification for those in the field.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

You might also Like

Discussion Comments

anon332720

This web site has been helpful to me, as I want to be a coroner. I knew that there were two ways to go about it but wasn't sure what the differences in job description would be. Now I'm 100 percent sure what I want to be is a medical examiner and a coroner maybe later.

irontoenail

@KoiwiGal - I imagine that a medical examiner is an expert that a coroner in the morgue can call on if they need a medical opinion on how or why a person passed away.

And medical examiners are helping people just as much as doctors are. You might even argue that they are helping people more, because if they find something wrong with a body that can be attributed to the environment, for example, they can help to save other lives.

Some people probably enjoy medical work but don't want to work that much with patients. I know that might sound weird, but it can be very emotionally draining to work with patients, if you have a certain personality type. Working as a medical examiner would be a good compromise.

KoiwiGal

It must be an interesting kind of person willing to go through the intense training needed to become a medical examiner. I can't imagine many med students go into university thinking to themselves that they'd like to work with dead bodies one day.

And to stay in school for that amount of time and with that much dedication is really extraordinary. Particularly when it seems like a coroner does a job with very similar purpose but no training.

sneakers41

There is a medical examiner show that I watch sometimes about real cases of people that have died. The medical examiner records information on the findings and she states out loud what she is looking for so that the viewer understands the steps.

I thought that the show would be quite gruesome but it wasn’t. It was really informative and interesting. For example, there was a case about a man that suddenly died and the medical examiner was trying to understand what happened to him.

She realized that he was taking a strong pain medication that was in a patch form that somehow was cut which lead to the patient receiving a lethal dosage of the medication and died. This was a manufacturer's defect and not a homicide.

The nice thing about this profession is that they get to give the family some answers that only the medical examiner would know about the loved one. I can see where this field would be rewarding because since the victim cannot speak the medical examiner could alert investigators of how the person died especially if the death was part of a cover up.

At least this way the dead person will have justice after all. A medical examiner could also consider coroner training and consider this option as well and seek elected office to become a county coroner.

anon67129

wisegeek.com has really helped me with everything.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • Medical examiners perform the autopsies.
      By: Leah-Anne Thompson
      Medical examiners perform the autopsies.
    • Coroners handle the investigation of the deceased.
      By: Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office
      Coroners handle the investigation of the deceased.
    • Medical examiners perform autopsies.
      By: Marcin Sadlowski
      Medical examiners perform autopsies.
    • Medical examiners may work closely with pathologists to confirm if disease caused the death.
      By: kasto
      Medical examiners may work closely with pathologists to confirm if disease caused the death.
    • A medical examiner is a licensed physician who specializes in forensic pathology.
      By: Edyta Pawlowska
      A medical examiner is a licensed physician who specializes in forensic pathology.
    • A medical examiner's findings may be particularly beneficial in cases involving a sudden death.
      By: antiksu
      A medical examiner's findings may be particularly beneficial in cases involving a sudden death.