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Forensic Medical Examiner Career Outlook

Medical examiners, a career which once existed far from the public eye, has become much more well-known thanks in large part to popular culture representations of them such as Dr. Saroyen from the television show Bones. By examining bodies of people who have expired, a medical examiner can uncover the secrets of their death, sometimes with alarming precision.

People who have an interest in this field will find that it has many rewarding possibilities, from the salary to the interesting work the career offers. A medical examiner may also be a trained forensic pathologist, but not necessarily. It is also important to distinguish a medical examiner from a coroner who may or may not have medical training whatsoever.

Those in the field perform postmortem examinations of human bodies from people who pass away. They look into sudden and unexpected deaths, as well as violent deaths so that they will be able to determine the cause of said death, as well as the manner of the death. The forensic medical examiner may look into the medical history of the deceased, look at the crime scene and statements from witnesses, and examine evidence found on the body, such as gunpowder residue or bodily fluids. Having knowledge of other fields, such as DNA, toxicology, and even ballistics can be beneficial.

The medical examiner will create and prepare reports, including a death certificate, and will often work quite closely with law enforcement on cases. In addition, the specialists may also have to testify in court and present their findings before a judge and jury.

Career Outlook for the Medical Examiner

Anyone choosing to become a forensic medical examiner needs to become a licensed physician first. Although data specific to the medical examiner career is not available, according to the 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the outlook for the career of a physician is quite good. The BLS predicts that there will be a growth rate of approximately 13 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations, which is just 7 percent. The demand for physicians is growing because the field of healthcare is expanding. However, even as those jobs grow, it is important for prospective medical examiners to remember that their job is a subset in the field, and that means that the actual number of jobs in the field of medical examiner will be lower, and the competition is going to be high.

Those who have an interest in pursuing the field should look into some of the different professional organizations set up specifically for medical examiners. the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), is one such group. Another of the professional groups that offers certification is the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). It is also possible to find information from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), which provides support to all manner of scientists working in the field of forensics.

Forensic Medical Examiner Salary

Before diving into any career, considering the potential salary is important. Because the salaries for medical examiners can depend so heavily on experience as well as geography, determining the specific expected salary can be difficult. The median pay for a physician in 2017 was $253,629, but this number could be misleading since the median number considers all of the different types of physicians.

Limited salary data is also available from other sources. For instance, Payscale, a site that aggregates self-reported salary data for myriad different jobs has collected some details about how medical examiners in the U.S. are paid. According to 28 individuals who reported their pay, the median salary for a medical examiner is $72,414 per year. Reported salaries range as follows:

  • 10th percentile: $30,000
  • 25th percentile: $41,000
  • 75th percentile: $100,000
  • 90th percentile: $150,000

The best way to determine an accurately predicted salary for the job is to look at the various states and cities that utilize medical examiners and then inquire as to the specific salary. Many different things besides the location will factor into the pay, however.

How to Become a Medical Examiner

Becoming a medical examiner will take a substantial amount of work and schooling. They need to have four years of college and a bachelor’s degree, along with requirements for medical school. During the medical schooling, they need to earn their MD or DO. They will need an additional residency training in forensic pathology a forensic pathology fellowship.

Forensic medical examiners will also need to have certain qualities to excel in the field. Because it takes so long to get through the school, dedication is vital. Great communication skills, confidence, and a strong stomach are important. Working in this field can be a bit gruesome. Following are the most common steps taken to become a medical examiner.

  • Step 1: Graduate high school (4 years) – Preparation for medical school happens as early as high school. Students should do their best to excel in all coursework, particularly biology, chemistry and other science classes.
  • Step 2: Pursue an undergraduate degree (4 years) – Future medical examiners will need to excel in their undergraduate education as well, since medical school can be extremely competitive. Students interested in this career may choose a pre-med track and with a major such as biology or chemistry. Students who chooses to pursue a forensic science degree should ensure that they are meeting all medical school prerequisites with their undergraduate courses.
  • Step 3: Complete medical school (4 years) – Although it represents just one step on this list, medical school is a massive undertaking. A highly competitive application process means that students should be prepared to submit a thorough accounting of all academic work, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and scores for the Medical College Admission Exam (MCAT). Once admitted to medical school, students will find themselves taking rigorous courses in topics such as advanced anatomy, physiology, and microbiology as well as learning proper clinical practice and bedside manner. No matter what their ultimate career goal, during medical school, students will also complete supervised clinical rotations to apply their skills in specialties such as internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, and pathology. It is recommended that any student pursuing the medical examiner career take any available courses in forensics or pathology at this stage. For example, autopsy pathology is one common elective in medical school, and may also be available among clinical rotations. Doctors who complete medical school are awarded a medical doctor (MD) degree or a doctor of osteopathy (DO) depending on the program.
  • Step 4: Earn medical license – Graduates of medical school can earn a medical license upon the successful completion of their board exams, also known as United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The licensing examination actually consists of three separate exams beginning the second year of medical school with the final exam taking place after one year of residency. Licensing requirements beyond this exam can vary between states, so those pursuing a medical career should be sure to consider where they plan to live and work prior to becoming licensed.
  • Step 5: Pursue residency (3 years) – After graduation, students begin a full-time residency where they are able to begin to practice more and more independently as physicians. Medical examiners may choose to complete a residency in the pathology specialty since there are not residency programs that focus entirely on the medical examiner career. Rather, applicants should look for residencies that do include autopsy and forensic pathology training as part of the program.
  • Step 6: Apply for medical examiner fellowship (1 year) – To specialize in the medical examiner career, most doctors choose to do a fellowship. These fellowships will mainly take place at government-run medical examiner offices and will give doctors the chance to focus on all aspects of the career.
  • Step 7: Build a professional network (timeline varies) – During every step towards this career, aspiring medical examiners should be building a professional network. This is particularly important in this specialty because many medical examiners must be appointed to office, which is quite different from the hiring process in most other medical specialties. A medical examiner fellowship will be helpful, but it can also be useful to attend conferences and other networking events to get in front of those who may be integral to future professional success.

Becoming a medical examiner clearly requires an extremely dedicated individual. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least an additional 12 years pursuing education and training in the fields of pathology and forensics in order to prepare for this career. Because the position is often appointed, there may also be an extended period where a trained medical examiner is not able to find employment in the area of their choosing.


Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree

Medical examiners must be medical doctors with specific training in conducting death investigations. However, there are some jobs available for those who are not interested in pursuing a full course of medical study. For instance, forensic autopsy technicians can also be employed in a medical examiner’s officer, assisting with autopsies and helping to determine a cause of death. Further, in many jurisdictions, coroners do not need specific medical training. These professionals work alongside medical examiners and pathologists to determine why someone may have died and are responsible for tasks such as completing death certificates.


Graduates with a Master’s Degree

Students may also choose to pursue a master’s degree in a field such as pathology. Earning a master of science (MS) in pathology can be helpful in obtaining a position in a medical examiner’s office or in a laboratory that tests samples from the medical examiner. A master’s degree could also be useful in obtaining a position such as forensic pathologist assistant. Should someone in that position decide they want to take the next step towards becoming a medical examiner, that type of experience could be very valuable.

Medical Examiner Tasks and Responsibilities

On television dramas, medical examiners are nearly always seen hunkered over a body, pointing out wounds and evidence to interested detectives and solving mysteries. While autopsies are a critical part of the medical examiner job, but in reality, there are many daily tasks and responsibilities that this type of professional will need to be prepared to complete — and not all of them look good on television. The work of a medical examiner can be quite gruesome and at times isolating, since medical examiner offices typically do not have very many employees. Medical examiners must be comfortable dissecting bodies, removing organs, and at times dealing with those who have experienced a very traumatic and violent death. In addition, they can expect to:

  • record all details about a body, including the weight of organs and other specifics
  • take samples of bodily fluids
  • take or supervise the taking of photos of the body
  • perform x-rays and CT scans of a body where required
  • travel to and investigate crime scenes in the case of unusual circumstances
  • communicate findings to law enforcement and victim’s families
  • consider medical history and relay undiagnosed illnesses, such as cancer, to family members
  • act as an advocate for a victim that can no longer advocate for themselves

Licensure & Certification

In order to become a medical examiner, one has to take a licensing exam regardless of the state where he or she works. Different states have different requirements for licenses. In addition to the licensing, many medical examiners will also want to look into certifications, as they can help to improve the chance of finding a job.

The ABMDI offers certification options that may help to bolster a career. Applicants must have a minimum of 640 hours of work in death investigation in order to be certified by the ABMDI. medical examiners may also consider earning board certification in forensic pathology from the American Board of Pathology. While professional certification is not legally required to work as a medical examiner, it can be helpful in obtaining employment in this competitive field.

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