A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who performs autopsies to determine the cause and manner of unexpected or suspicious deaths. They can work in both medical and governmental settings.
A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who investigates unexpected, suspicious, unnatural and/or violent deaths. They usually do this by performing autopsies (a medical exam of a body after death). Their work involves both medical and legal matters.
Pathology is the branch of medicine that involves the laboratory examination of samples of body tissues for diagnostic or forensic purposes. “Forensic” means “related to scientific methods of solving crimes.” But not all deaths that forensic pathologists investigate are criminal.
Forensic pathologists have specialized training in the following areas:
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The main role of a forensic pathologist is to determine the mechanism, time and manner of death (that is, homicide, suicide, accidental, natural or undetermined) in cases in which a person dies unexpectedly or violently.
To do this, a forensic pathologist:
After they’ve finished their investigation, the forensic pathologist prepares a written report explaining the mechanism, time and manner of death. They may also testify to these findings in court as an expert witness.
Forensic pathologists may also be involved in examining cases of living patients who have experienced sexual assault or physical abuse.
Most forensic pathologists work for a city or county government in the medical examiner’s or coroner’s offices. Others work in hospitals, medical schools or in a private practice that provides autopsy services under contract to attorneys, families and others.
Forensic pathologists spend most of their time in a morgue performing autopsies or in a lab examining tissue samples and running tests. Occasionally, forensic pathologists may have to go to a death scene to work with police investigators.
A person can be both a medical examiner and a forensic pathologist, but the titles have different meanings.
Forensic pathology is a medical specialty, and a forensic pathologist is a medical doctor. The title of “medical examiner” is usually the job title of a forensic pathologist who works for a government.
A coroner is an elected or appointed public official whose main role is to certify the cause of death. Most coroners aren’t medical doctors, so they usually work with a forensic pathologist.
To become a board-certified forensic pathologist, you must:
It usually takes about 13 years to become a forensic pathologist. This includes pre-medical education, medical school, a residency and a fellowship.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Forensic pathologists are essential medical professionals who work behind the scenes to medically investigate unexpected or suspicious deaths. They have specialized knowledge and skills to examine bodies and accurately determine the cause and manner of death.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/17/2023.
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