Forensic pathologists, or medical examiners, are specially trained physicians who examine the bodies of people who died suddenly, unexpectedly, or violently. The forensic pathologist is responsible for determining the cause (the ultimate and immediate reasons for the cessation of life) and manner of death (homicide, suicide, accidental, natural, or unknown).
To determine the identity of the victim and the time, manner and cause of death, the forensic pathologist:
In addition to anatomy, the forensic pathologist may draw upon specialized knowledge and training in:
A forensic pathologist may be appointed as a Medical Examiner by a legal jurisdiction such as a city, county or state.
Clinical forensic pathologists examine living patients, usually in cases where sexual assault or abuse is suspected.
Once all the evidence is analyzed, the forensic pathologist prepares a written report, and may also testify to these findings in court.
This career profile was reviewed and approved by Max Houck, M.A., Director, Forensic Science Initiative, West Virginia University.
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Forensic Pathologist 14 May 2008 [pdf, 168 KB]
investigation into cause of death. They ensure that procedures regarding evidence collection are followed, and coordinate their work with law enforcement operations.
Some work full-time for the city, county, or federal government, while others work in hospitals, medical schools or with a private or group practice that contracts autopsy services to government agencies.
A typical workday can last 10-12 hours or longer, particularly if the forensic pathologist must examine a distant death site.
Forensic pathologists spend most of their time in the lab, performing autopsies or examining tissue samples under the microscope. This can involve standing for extended periods and working with small tools.
The rest of the workday is divided between writing official reports and making court appearances.
The physical demands are not great, but over time, the forensic pathologist may become emotionally affected by continual exposure to graphic violence.
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Last updated: April 18, 2014
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