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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the primary differences between a coroner and a medical examiner?
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?
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 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.