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What Is A Forensic Pathologist

A forensic pathologist is a person with specialized medical training that provides high quality forensic pathology services to coroners, the police, lawyers, and courts. In criminal investigations (as well as sometimes civil law cases) they determine the time, cause, and manner of death by examining the corpse. This examination, called an autopsy, is usually requested by a coroner or medical examiner. However, this we all know from years of popular culture's dramatization of the laboratory technician with all the answers. What we would really like to know is "what is real forensic work"?

What does a forensic pathologist really do? How do they put to use their well earned medical degrees, their certification in anatomical pathology and their Board Certification? What is the function of these specially trained doctors who examine the bodies of people who died violently or unexpectedly, or whose cause of death is unknown?

Maybe, television has got it right for a change

"The vast majority of the work we do is looking for patterns and trends in causes of death to enable us to identify hazards in the community that can be prevented in the future. We provide that information to a coroner, and the coroner can then evaluate that death together with other deaths and come to perhaps recommendations that might be put in place to prevent such deaths in the future." Says Dr. David Ranson, at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, Australia.

Examples of these trends and patterns include automobile collisions, airplane crashes, fire, homicide, suicide, infanticide, poisonings, falls from heights, bomb explosions, construction site accidents, industrial and agricultural accidents, freak occurrences, military incidents, catastrophic weather events, (tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc ) and perhaps, the most challenging the exhumation of human remains.

Starting with an autopsy along with examining the deceased's medical history, a forensic pathologist will also take into account any number of other information sources, including possible trace evidence from the body, performing toxicology screens, blood analysis and DNA testing. Afterwards, they write up a report. Sometimes, they may even be called up to testify in court proceedings. From television, a viewer might get the impression that a single pathologist can do all these tasks. Dr. David Ranson says that normally, each task is performed by separate pathologists. One does the ballistics, one does the toxicology, and one does the autopsy. This is likely due to the sub-specialization of the various branches of forensic pathology; and yes, there are even forensic veterinarians. Yet, a forensic pathologist does not only examine cadavers; clinical pathologists examine living patients, usually in suspected sexual assault or abuse cases.

Oh sure, there has been a lot of forensic pathology dramatized on television over the years, but as entertaining as the men and women in the long lab coats are, forensic pathology is still a serious pursuit of scientific inquiry. Frequently in the assistance of criminal investigations, but also in the aftermath of large scale disasters where answers are needed in terms of identifying the deceased and determining the time, cause, and manner of death, bringing closure to the deceased's family. That might very well be the most rewarding aspect of the job of a forensic pathologist. We've not heard the last of this fascinating profession.