For a long time, a friend of ours thought the term "medical examiner" was just a fancy way to say "coroner." It took some time, but we eventually succeeded in convincing her that they are not the same and that the differences are not minor matters -- depending on where you are. It may or may not be as simple as, say, one being appointed and the other elected.
The first thing to note is that a medical examiner is a licensed physician certified in forensic medicine. The certification requires work in pathology or forensic medicine as a resident and a fellow and a passing grade on an exam specific to that field of medicine. As a licensed physician, of course, the medical examiner must follow the state medical board's rules; a failure to do so could result in license suspension or revocation.
A coroner need not be a physician. Many coroners may come to the position with the same credentials as a medical examiner, but the title of coroner does not come with any special medical privileges or a qualified license to practice. As a result, the coroner may not perform an autopsy or any procedure requiring a medical license, lest he or she run up against the medical board's rule against practicing medicine without a license.
According to the National Library of Medicine, a coroner has historically been an elected county official, enjoying or cursed by all the partisan politics that come with any county office. Coroners generally served fixed terms of two or four years. Medical examiner, however, is an appointed position unaffiliated with any political party and unencumbered by term limits.
The duties vary as well, and we'll get into them more in our next post. We'll also discuss the very different approach adopted by Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Source: US Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine