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

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon332720 — On May 01, 2013

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.

By irontoenail — On Oct 24, 2012

@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.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 24, 2012

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.

By sneakers41 — On Apr 04, 2011

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.

By anon67129 — On Feb 23, 2010

wisegeek.com has really helped me with everything.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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