While sometimes an individual’s cause of death may be readily determined, other times
the manner of death is not clear. When this occurs, an investigation into the cause
and manner of death may become necessary. These potentially high stakes investigations
may result in criminal charges or civil cases and are conducted by individuals with
investigatory and medical skills.
What is a Medical Examiner?
A medical examiner uses their medical skills and knowledge to examine a deceased person
in order to determine when the person died and what caused the person’s death. Medical
examiners are physicians, specifically forensic pathologists, and must have specialized
training in forensic pathology, toxicology, evidentiary procedure and more.
Medical examiners review medical histories, conduct autopsies, prepare reports, relay
findings to law enforcement, meet with victim’s families and may testify in trials.
One of their most important responsibilities is to advocate for victims—victims who
are no longer able to testify on their own behalf.
Dr. Gregory McDonald, dean of PCOM’s School of Health Sciences and director of the Forensic Medicine program, has conducted more than 8,000 autopsies and has testified in more than 800 court
cases. He has served as an assistant medical examiner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
and is currently the chief deputy coroner of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. According
to McDonald, critical traits for a medical examiner include exceptional analytical
skills, excellent communication skills and a strong constitution. A medical examiner
must also have a good knowledge base of anatomy and histology.
While the analytical skills are necessary to investigate and determine cause of death,
a medical examiner must be able to effectively communicate these findings with the
victim’s family members, law enforcement officials, judges, jury members and others.
Medical examiners develop communication and people skills in their roles as physicians
but the ability to testify effectively in court is developed over time through public
speaking courses, on-the-job training, mock trials and courtroom experience, McDonald
Though many aspiring medical examiners are confident they have the constitution to
deal with postmortem changes including decomposition, insect activity and mummification,
McDonald said that is not always the case. Even those who may be able to deal with
the condition of a body may find the actual autopsy process difficult and jarring.
The ability to successfully deal with the unpleasant and difficult aspects of the
job is another critical trait for medical examiners.
“The successful medical examiner needs to be able to understand that individuals have
often died a violent death and they must be able to distance themselves emotionally,”
McDonald said. “You have to be able to compartmentalize violent, tragic deaths so
that you can go home and enjoy the rest of your life.”
How to Become a Medical Examiner
Becoming a medical examiner requires extensive training including a medical degree.
Step 1: Obtain an undergraduate degree
While there is no single degree that leads to a medical examiner career, there are
programs that help prepare students for medical school. These may be designated pre-med
programs or degrees in biology, chemistry or other sciences.
While in medical school, students interested in becoming a medical examiner should
take courses in forensic medicine, pathology and related topics. A dual degree or
a minor in a related academic area may also be beneficial. For example, PCOM offers
a dual Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine/Master of Science in Forensic Medicine degree which includes training in the theory, principles, ethics, professional practice
and legal aspects of forensic medicine.
Step 4: Obtain a medical license
Upon completion of medical school, graduates must successfully complete board exams
in order to obtain a medical license.
Step 5: Complete a residency
A residency in anatomic pathology provides training in evaluating tissue specimens
and may include training in autopsy pathology which allows residents to develop expertise
in examining deceased individuals.
Step 6: Complete a fellowship
Forensic pathology fellowships provide physicians with the opportunity to work in
a medical examiner’s office and get additional training in collecting evidence, performing
external examinations and conducting autopsies.
Step 7: Gain relevant job experience
Medical examiners are often appointed to office. This means becoming a medical examiner
may require years of experience in a related profession and extensive networking.
Aspiring medical examiners may gain experience working as forensic pathologists, coroners
and expert witnesses.
According to McDonald, there is currently a dearth of forensic pathologists.
“We are trying to get more students to go into forensic pathology,” he said. “It’s
a pretty long haul and an expensive one as well.”
Generating interest in the field is also made more challenging by the nature of the
“A forensic pathologist is a physician but we have different types of victories,”
McDonald said. “Our victories are trying to help families get some type of closure
and get justice in a court of law if possible. Our testimony can help that.”
Learn more about the dual degree DO/MS in Forensic Medicine program at PCOM. The five-year program includes forensic coursework and a capstone integrated experience.
Currently enrolled osteopathic medicine students who have successfully completed the
first term of the first year of the DO program and are in good academic standing may