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What is the Difference Between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner

What is the Difference Between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner

In this article we'll find out the differences between the job descriptions of a coroner and a medical examiner, and see how using these terms interchangeably is not the right practice.
Gauri Huddar
A coroner and a medical examiner, both have jobs closely dealing with death, so it is a common mistake to confuse the two. But there is a vast difference in their jobs. A coroner usually carries out other jobs too, in case he is required to do so. He doubles up as the sheriff in the state of Georgia and can carry out arrest warrants, while in Kentucky they are permitted to carry firearms since they are vested with the authority of peace officers by the state. It all varies from state to state and can get really confusing! Here is a brief article to diffuse that confusion, and help you differentiate between a coroner and a medical examiner.
In the United States, the definition of a coroner and a medical examiner varies from county to county. Some counties/ jurisdictions, require the coroner to be a physician, while others do not really require him to have any related qualifications for the job. But in all places, the medical examiner is required to be a trained medical person - either a physician, and if the rules are stricter, then a forensic pathologist, or at least a pathologist. The coroner is mainly a government official, who is elected by the voting system. He can be anyone from the local grocery shop owner, the gardener, or anybody else who is qualified for voting. Let's find out some more differences between them.
Differences Between Coroners and Medical Examiners

Coroner Medical Examiner
A coroner is elected for the job by voting, and can be anyone from an 18 year old student to a 60 year old citizen. A medical examiner is not elected. He is hired based on his qualifications, and he must have gone through medical school.

A coroner may or may not be required to have any medical qualification, since he does not delve very deeply into the cause of the death, by performing autopsies. A medical examiner has to compulsorily have a medical qualification, to be appointed as the medical examiner.

A coroner doesn't require a medical license, to be elected to this position. The law though, has become stricter. Now many jurisdictions require the coroners to have a medical license. A medical examiner has to have a valid medical license to be appointed.

A coroner is required to be a resident of the county/ jurisdiction that he is going to be elected the coroner of, and has to be above the official voting age. He could be the local farmer, librarian, or a shop keeper. Some states require coroners to have a medical background. In some cases, when the rules pertaining to a county are stringent, then the medical examiner will have to be specifically trained in forensic pathology, or at least pathology, while in areas where the rules are not so strict, the medical examiner can be a general physician, gynecologist, dentist, or any other specialist.

In small jurisdictions, the coroner may double up as the sheriff, and if he is qualified, then as the local general physician as well. Medical examiners cannot double up as law enforcement officials. They only serve as medical examiners and in cases like those mentioned above, in their own specialties.

Differences in Job Profile
The job description of a medical examiner varies slightly from that of a coroner. Let's take a look at what duties these titles entail.

Coroner's Duties
  • The coroner declares the person as deceased, and may lead an inquest to identify the cause, manner, and time of death of the deceased individual.
  • In a few jurisdictions, the coroners are responsible for the evaluation of the mental health and progress of the mentally ill people living in his jurisdiction.
  • The coroner sends for a medical examiner when he feels that the death has occurred under suspicious circumstances, and an autopsy is required.
  • Coroners are also expected to work with the family members of the deceased individual, and help investigators to find the cause of death, in case of a crime/ suspected murder.
  • They are required to help identify unknown dead bodies, and pass on any belongings of the deceased, to their family.
  • The coroner has to complete all formalities after a death has occurred, and is also required to sign the death certificate of the deceased individual.

Medical Examiner's Duties
  • The main duty of the medical examiner is to perform autopsies on the deceased person, to determine the cause of death.
  • Medical examiners, unlike coroners, are expected to keep detailed medical records about the death of individuals, so that records are available in case they are required in the future.
  • Medical examiners are supposed to make sure that the evidence in case of suicides, homicides and the like, is not disturbed, if it is needed to be produced in court.
  • They are also required to testify in court with their expertise, if the situation and circumstances demand.
  • It is the job of the medical examiner, to decide which cases of death qualify for an autopsy and which do not. He can call for an autopsy if he feels that the manner/ circumstance of death was suspicious.

Death investigation systems are undergoing major changes in recent years. Coroners are now being described as the weak link in the system, by the panel of National Academy of Sciences, since they usually do not have any medical background or experience. Nowadays, most state and county laws have been modified, and coroners are compulsorily required to have medical training, to be elected to this position. Medical examiner systems are replacing coroner systems across almost all the states. This will hopefully reduce the number of mistakes made during death investigations, and improve the quality of death examinations/ investigations.