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Pathology is the study of disease through the examination of body fluids, organs, tissue and whole bodies.


Pathology is the study of disease through the examination of body fluids, organs, tissue and whole bodies. According to ForensicOnline, pathologists usually specialize in only a few areas, broadly divided into anatomic and clinical, because this field of study is so vast. Anatomic pathology is devoted to the gross, microscopic and molecular examination of the body. It is further divided into autopsy pathology, diagnostic cytology and surgical pathology. Clinical pathology is based on the laboratory analysis of body fluids.

Forensic pathology is an additional specialization of anatomic pathology that is primarily concerned with determining the cause of death. A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who has completed additional training and education to become board certified in forensic pathology. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies and investigate suspicious deaths when requested by treating physicians, law enforcement officials or family members.

Education for Forensic Pathologists

An aspiring pathologist will need to complete a standard four-year college program to obtain a bachelors degree, preferably in a scientific discipline, such as biology, chemistry or pre-medicine. This will be followed by four years of medical school to get a medical degree. A doctor will then need to complete at least four years of residency to qualify as an anatomic pathologist, although a five year residency that combines anatomic and clinical pathology is preferred. A pathologist must also complete a one to two year fellowship to qualify for the Board exam in forensic pathology. Once forensic pathologists pass the Board exam, they are certified in forensic pathology. Certification in any subspecialty of pathology is regulated by the American Board of Pathology.

Duties of a Forensic Pathologist

The primary function of a forensic pathologist is to determine the manner and cause of death, especially for persons who have died an unexpected, sudden or violent death. This includes performing an autopsy for the purpose of detecting the absence or presence of injury, poisoning or disease.

A forensic pathologist evaluates information from law enforcement officials, including trace evidence, documentation of sexual assaults and injury reconstructions. This requires that forensic pathologists be trained in specific medical areas such as DNA technology, forensic serology and toxicology. A forensic pathologist may also need expertise in non-medical sciences, such as ballistics.

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a forensic pathologist frequently serves as the case coordinator for the team investigating a death and ensures that the proper procedures and techniques have been followed. A forensic pathologist may also be employed as the direct investigator of a death. In this case, the forensic pathologist will assess witness statements, analyze the death scene and interpret injury patterns. Forensic pathologists normally perform autopsies in jurisdictions that have a medical examiner system. Forensic pathology can play a role in public health by recognizing an epidemic disease and it can also be useful in identifying consumer products with a faulty design.

Procedures in Forensic Pathology

The forensic examination of a body is a common procedure in forensic pathology. The forensic pathologist will first perform an external examination of the clothing and the body itself. The body will usually be photographed and the pathologist will make a diagram and written report describing any diseases and injuries. The autopsy will examine the internal organs microscopically and x-rays may also be taken to detect abnormalities, such as broken bones and bullets.

A forensic pathologist may also collect trace evidence associated with a death. According to the Forensic Sciences Foundation, this includes hair, blood, semen and clothing fibers. A forensic pathologist may also collect specimens such as bile, blood, urine, stomach contents and body tissues for a toxicological analysis. This test can detect the presences of drugs, poisons and other chemicals in the body. Evidence relating to firearms such as bullets, shells or wadding may also be recovered so they may be analyzed by a firearms examiner.

Forensic pathologists frequently analyze injury patterns to determine the manner and cause of death. Each type of injury such as blunt force, sharp force or gunshot may have a specific pattern that can be recognized. These injury patterns are especially important in identifying cases of child abuse or elder abuse. Forensic pathologists frequently attempt to identify a deceased person by using dental and medical records in addition to other distinct characteristics of that individual. A forensic pathologist is sometimes needed just to identify the gender or race if the body is badly decomposed. These cases may also require the forensic pathologist to consult with other specialists such as a physical anthropologist or forensic dentist (odontologist).

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