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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
THE SHORTAGE OF MEDICAL EXAMINERS ANDFORENSIC PATHOLOGISTS
Medical examiners are physicians who are appointed and charged with determining the cause and manner of death. In some states, medical examiners are forensic pathologists, while in other statewide systems, local, city, and county medical examiners are physicians but do not need to be forensic pathologists. They receive death investigation training and are responsible for examining bodies that do not require medicolegal autopsy and, according to system guidelines, for referring cases that need autopsy to regional offices where forensic pathologists perform the examinations and initiate further investigation as needed. Well-trained local medical examiners keep costs in line by reducing transportation costs to regional or central offices and are more accessible than pathologists in distant offices. Changes in the delivery of health care, increased patient caseloads, the inconvenience of attending scenes, the need for before and after hours examination of decedents, and the level of remuneration have made it difficult for statewide systems to recruit busy physicians to serve as community or local medical examiners. If this trend continues, systems will rely more heavily on lay medical death investigators and will need to develop training programs that assure competency.
Forensic pathology is the subspecialty of medicine devoted to the investigation and physical examination of persons who die a sudden, unexpected, suspicious, or violent death. Forensic pathology derives its name from “forensis” (public), or pertaining to the forum, and “pathos” (suffering), referring to pathos or suffering. The term ultimately evolved to encompass the study of deaths due to injury and disease and of deaths that are of interest to the legal “forum.” Forensic pathologists are physicians who have completed, at a minimum, four years of medical school and three to four years of medical specialty training in anatomical pathology or anatomical and clinical pathology, followed by an accredited fellowship year in forensic pathology. They are certified by examination and assessment of their credentials by the American Board of Pathology in, at a minimum, anatomical pathology, and by subspecialty examination, as having special competence in forensic pathology.
As of 2008, approximately 38 forensic pathology residency programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education sponsored approximately 70 training fellowships. Some positions are unfunded, and others did not find suitable candidates. Forty-two candidates were certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology in January 2008. Pathologists must recertify by examination every 10 years to maintain their certifications, in addition to maintaining a professional license in the state in which they are practicing, by submitting a descrip-