How to Become a Medical Examiner

Medical Specialties

how to become a Medical Examiner

Are you are considering a career in medicine? No matter what job title you choose, you must be really sure it will be your long-term solution.


First of all, it’s definitely not for the faint hearted since you’re regularly facing blood, disease, and death. Secondly, you often don’t get much sleep. And are you prepared for the long time it takes to study for a specialty field?


Let’s help you find your ideal career by shedding some light on one interesting and unique medical position: being a medical examiner. 


Could this role—where you work with victims instead of patients—be your true calling?

What a medical examiners do? 

Medical examiners are licensed doctors who specialize in and have been trained in forensics and/or pathology. They carry out autopsies by close examination of a body. A body’s various tissues and fluids help them determine a cause of death. In most cases they are investigating violent or unexplained deaths.


What to expect and be ready for as a medical examiner:


  • A diverse work experience
  • A life of visiting crime scenes that could be filled with blood and gore
  • Examination of dead bodies or body parts
  • An overwhelming sense of obligation to solving crime-based investigations
  • Pure joy when justice is served if your discovered evidence can be used to convict a criminal
  • Long and irregular hours of work
  • Court or trial date appearances to give testimony in ongoing investigations

Duties

Handling autopsies

An autopsy is the study of the human body post mortem to establish the cause of death.

Analyzing evidence

These professionals look at blood, DNA, and other evidence to determine connections, realize causes and provide proof that can be used to convict a guilty party. During these tests you’ll use microscopes, do autopsies, and use other laboratory equipment to determine the truth.

Running, creating, and analyzing pathology reports

A pathology report is a written document containing information and findings on laboratory tests on tissues or cells to establish a cause of death or disease.

Compiling forensic reports

A forensic report is a written document of evidence gathered. This usually is to support findings related to a crime scene.

On site visits to crime scene investigations

Medical examiners are called to scenes of crimes to gather evidence and/or to assist and assess these premises. They work very closely with law enforcement.

You can see it’s a job of both a technical, scientific, and practical nature. This combination of approaches makes it interesting and stimulating.


Bonuses and Benefits for medical examiners

If you would like to be well paid for the hard work—and years of preparation you’ll go through—a medical examiner’s salary may be an excellent motivator to keep going.

 

  • Entry level salaries are well above average salaries in other job markets

  • Senior positions can provide you with double your junior level salary

  • The industry standard for bonuses is set in the vicinity of ten percent of your annual salary

  • Medical, dental and vision plans are part of your package with an employer

  • High probability for employment in the private sector

  • Various fields of employment are available to pursue within the degree


Work Environment for Medical examiners

Most medical examiners work in a facility attached to a hospital. These facilities are commonly known as mortuaries or morgues. However sometimes these professionals may have laboratories outside of mortuaries where they perform pathology and forensic tests.

General Environment

1

Medical examiners spend a large portion of their time investigating the forensic evidence related to a crime. Thereafter, they follow up with an autopsy to inter-link and confirm their findings.


Some forensic investigations can take place at crime scenes—where they personally collect the evidence—or by way of an autopsy they conduct at the mortuary. The setup in a mortuary closely resembles a laboratory where excellent lighting, a focus on hygiene and a necessity for accurate documentation are vital.


Forensic evidence is highly regarded in criminal cases and assists the police in convicting criminals. This adds to the importance of supplying clear records and evidence not contaminated by specimens from other cases.


When working with bodies you can expect to be faced with distasteful sights and odors. You may even face hazardous material from a crime, or from a site where a body was found. Safety procedures and protective clothing should be mandatory.

Office Environment

2

Much of the work of an ME is done in private, or perhaps in small teams. You must therefore be prepared for working in seclusion at times. Only when it’s time to discuss the findings with physicians or law enforcement will you engage with others.

 

However, if you’re responsible for gathering evidence on a site, this can lead to some great interaction with other professionals.

 

In some cases, medical examiners work closely with coroners who will collect the bodies and transport them to the mortuary for further processing.

Hospitals 

3

Medical examiners spend a large portion of their time in hospitals and will often work for one facility at a time. It is also common to find a senior medical examiner with up to ten pathologists who work under their supervision. Even in smaller residential areas, there is often more than one medical examiner covering the district.

Social Environment

4

Due to the long hours medical examiners keep, their social calendars are not much to celebrate. They may have to guard against becoming socially awkward since not all other professionals can relate with their work.


Working Hours of medical examiners

Medical examiners don’t really keep strict office hours. Most mortuaries work on a shift basis. So, if you’re looking for an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, this may not be for you.


However, it depends on your contract. Some medical examiners can keep normal office hours, though they may be long days depending on the work load. Many MEs report clocking more hours than other professions, working up to 60 hours a week. 

Work Schedules of medical examiners

Medical Examiners work on a quota set by their department heads. This quota takes into account that general autopsies take 2 to 4 hours on average. However, in these instances, the process can take up to 6 hours:


  • Homicides

  • Suspicious deaths

  • Suspected homicides

Each medical examiner needs to achieve a minimum quota of 250 autopsies per year. This quota may not legally exceed more than 350 autopsies per medical examiner per year.

Along with autopsies, your schedule includes traveling to death sites, writing reports, and appearing in court.

As part of your schedule, you’ll also attend training. This continuing medical education is essential to stay informed about developments in the field. You will attend an average of 20 hours a year. You may find your employer will allow paid leave for this, since it benefits your career and also the institution.


Important Qualities of medical examiners

In addition to the knowledge gained through years of education, other primary skills are essential to the successful treatment of young patients. 

Qualities

Patient and calm

A medical examiner needs to practice and have patience. First, you shouldn’t add to other people’s stress and shock at the scene of a crime. You also work with a team of professionals who all gather evidence. You may have to wait for reports before you can continue your own investigation.

Flexible and energetic

A medical examiner needs to be flexible with their hours of work and are required to be alert and energetic at all times. The work is physically strenuous, so a healthy lifestyle aids in getting more done without feeling fatigued. If your report is urgent to inform a family or help with an investigation, you’ll need the energy to keep going until you’re finished with the task.

Highly organized

A medical examiner is trained to be highly organized. This relates to procedures, reports, and archiving. Any evidence that is not correctly processed may be at risk of not being admissible in court.

Queries may be made in the future about a specific case, so administration skills are vital. A medical examiner needs to keep a paper trail on all recorded deaths and investigations.

Good communication skills

Medical examiners deal with many different department heads when undertaking an investigation of a crime. They often deal with the deceased’s family when investigating a criminal case.

During this time, listening skills are important, but also knowing how to communicate complicated medical jargon in a way others will understand. When you’re testifying in court, jury members must be able to follow your report, otherwise misunderstandings can cause the wrong person to be convicted.

That is why medical training is necessary as this helps develop skills such as a good bedside manner. This is vitally important when dealing with families of the deceased.

Understanding Diverse Cultures

It is expected of a medical examiner to understand diverse cultures in order to conclude a successful outcome. When working within specific ethnic or cultural groups of people, unique characteristics—behaviors, food, or relationship guidelines—may be determining factors in an investigation. An ME should take this into consideration while viewing forensic evidence.

Problem Solving Abilities

A medical examiner is a problem solver. You start with not knowing how a person died. Without making assumptions, you must find proof of what happened and put together a timeline.

Code of Conduct

A strict code of conduct is followed by medical examiners. When they are called to the scene of a crime, they are the only ones qualified to deal with the examination and removal of the deceased.

No one at the scene is permitted access to the deceased until the medical examiner has done their necessary investigation on site. Medical examiners are qualified and trained to look for and collect forensic evidence in a very specific way. Their code of conduct requires them to follow procedures, so their reports will be honest representations of the truth.


Similar Occupations

A medical examiners degree can lead to other careers. One of the most commonly linked careers is a CSI (crime scene investigator) but what about one of these professions?


1. Forensic autopsy technician


A forensic autopsy technician assists a pathologist through the entire process of each autopsy. It is the duty and responsibility of the forensic autopsy technician to lodge all paperwork pertaining to each case.

2. Forensic pathologist


Forensic pathology focuses on examining the body for the purpose of establishing a cause of death. Most forensic pathologists work closely with the medical examiner to conclude their findings.

3. Forensic anthropologist


Forensic anthropology is the study of human remains or skeletons. In most instances, the studies of these remains are closely linked to a crime. A forensic anthropologist assists law enforcement with establishing and identifying if any trauma had occurred to the bones pre-mortem.

4. Pathologist’s assistant 


A pathologist’s assistant is specifically trained to prepare and present results and studies of human tissue and surgical specimens.

5. Medical scientist


A medical scientist studies disease and other related specimens with the hope to improve or overcome infections and kill viruses

6. Forensic odontology

A forensic odontologist studies the dental records of the deceased for the purpose of identification. A common forensic odontologist’s duty is to find and identify bite marks on bones or flesh for the use as evidence in a criminal case.

Important note: It takes an extreme amount of dedication and many years to qualify in this field. It is highly unlikely for a medical examiner to change his or her career path after all the time and effort it takes to qualify.


Projected Future of a medical examiners

Career Prospects

Medical examiners are in high demand all over the world. Research shows that a high percentage them retire each year and there is an insufficient number of qualified replacements for their current posts. It’s therefore a field of study that usually has guaranteed work options when finished.

Job Outlook

The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) report shows a predicted growth rate of 24 percent form 2014-2024. There are many job opportunities, and placement into a permanent position is highly likely.

Career Options

The options of where to work is rather specific, as an ME’s work relates to the medical field and law enforcement. Outside of this scope, you’ll have to consider a different career, as mentioned elsewhere in this article.

Potential increase

The high demand for medical examiners can be due to the unexpected increase in the population. This has created an increase in the number of criminally investigated deaths.


How to Become a medical examiners

As mentioned, it’s quite a long process to gain the title of medical examiner. Here is a basic outline

1. A bachelor’s degree in medicine

A degree in medicine can be studied at any major university. All universities have entry examinations along with certain criteria that need to be met for you to gain acceptance to their programs. A medical degree takes six years to complete. After completion, you would start a residency. During the final year of your 6-year degree, you need to apply or be matched to a local hospital where you can take up a 1-year internship. During the course of your internship, you are exposed to all specialties in medicine. 

2. An anatomic pathology residency

An anatomic pathology residency focuses mainly on one of the two branches of pathology. This is a study of the body through the organs rather than from a more clinical aspect via laboratory results or a microscope. A residency can last anywhere from 3-7 years. During your 1-year internship, you need to apply for a residency keeping a specialty in mind. At this point, some doctors stay in emergent medicine or become general practitioners. A residency can take anywhere from 3-7 years depending on your choice. For instance, if you want to study to become a medical examiner, this is when you would apply for a residency in anatomic pathology. 

3. A forensic pathology fellowship

Once you have completed your residency you would then be granted a fellowship in your field of specialty and expertise. It is at this time you would apply to fellowship with a senior medical examiner. A forensic pathology fellowship is your final step in qualification to becoming a medical examiner. It is of utmost importance to have experience in forensics. Forensics works hand in hand to produce vital results needed in criminal cases.


All of these requirements need to be completed before applying to work in a medical examiner or coroner’s office. Coroners are elected government officials and do not necessarily need a medical degree in order to keep death records. 


Picking a career as a Medical Examiner boasts a secure financial future and diversity in the work place. So, you’ll never be bored with your job. How could you if no two investigations will be exactly the same? And when you go home at night you’ll know your work helps solve the mysteries so everyone can be laid to rest with dignity. That’s rewarding.


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