In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
A forensic pathologist is a physician who assists with death investigations, often through a city, county, or state medical examiner’s office or in affiliation with an elected lay coroner’s office. The job varies by state, but the medical examiner is typically involved in investigating cases of sudden, unexpected death; death from accidental injury, violence, or poisoning; deaths outside of a hospital or hospice setting; deaths of infants and children; deaths in correctional institutions and state mental health facilities; deaths of people in police custody; and any other unusual case. When an autopsy is needed, the job goes to a forensic pathologist. These experts use knowledge of medicine, toxicology, criminalistics, and evidence collection and processing to provide information for police investigations, and when necessary they provide courtroom testimony.
In addition, forensic pathologists serve the cause of public health by watching for trends that could indicate a disease outbreak, the emergence of a new infectious disease, or a bioterrorism attack. Their reports contribute to surveillance for child mortality, intimate partner homicide, deaths due to drug abuse, and other types of deaths that public health programs may be able to address. Some also practice clinical forensic pathology, which means examining living patients for evidence of a crime such as rape or child abuse. The job can also include working with local hospitals on quality assurance for trauma and emergency care, collaborating with other agencies to review child fatalities, tracking trends in drug abuse, and participating in programs to promote driver safety.
Education and Certification
A forensic pathologist must have an MD or DO degree, and must have completed residency training in anatomic pathology, or anatomic and clinical pathology, plus a fellowship in forensic pathology. Certification by the American Board of Pathology, which requires an examination and ongoing education, is often expected.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Ability to handle unpleasant sights and smells without becoming ill or upset
- Tendency to ask questions and seek answers that are as complete as possible
- Attention to detail
- Thorough understanding of human anatomy
- Knowledge of toxicology, pathology, ballistics, infectious and chronic disease, and other subjects related to potential causes of death
- Knowledge of laws and procedures for the collection of evidence
Salaries vary by location and responsibility. Typical salaries offered for forensic pathologists range from the low $100,000s to the low $200,000s. Chief Medical Examiners and those who consult for coroners can earn quite a bit more.
In some places, the office of the medical examiner is part of the health department. In others, it is a separate part of city, county, or state government. Some areas have only coroners and no medical examiner’s office at all; in those jurisdictions, forensic pathologists are hired as consultants on a case-by-case basis. Forensic pathologists also work for hospitals or private medical groups that contract with the local government to provide forensic autopsy services.
The need for pathologists in general is expected to be strong over the next few years. With only about 600 board-certified forensic pathologists currently in full-time practice, the job opportunities in this specialty should be good. There has been discussion of converting the existing coroner systems to medical examiner systems within the next decade or two; if this happens, there may be many additional job openings.
For Further Information
- College of American Pathologists (CAP)
- National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME)
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)