We are finishing up our discussion of the difference between coroners and medical examiners. As we have said, the terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not strictly identical jobs. While the coroner may be a physician, there is generally no requirement for an active medical license. That is not to say that some states do not require coroners to be MDs.
Pennsylvania law does not require a coroner to be a licensed physician. Most counties in the state elect coroners, though a few, Philadelphia and Chester counties among them, have replaced the elected coroner with an appointed medical examiner.
Both offices investigate deaths that occur under certain circumstances. While the National Library of Medicine provides a long list of the types of deaths that a coroner or ME must investigate, local laws are a little more succinct.
For example, the National Library of Medicine’s list includes “deaths … that occurred due to criminal violence, poisoning, suicide, accident, negligence, [or] disease constituting public health threat[.]” Turn to the City of Philadelphia Personnel Department’s job description for the medical examiner, and we are told that the ME’s office is responsible for “determining the cause and manner of sudden, violent, or otherwise suspicious deaths.” Lancaster County’s coroner’s office investigates deaths that “are sudden, unexpected, unattended, or of a violent or suspicious nature.”
These are not substantive differences. Both offices are charged with determining the cause of death and the mode or manner of death. For our purposes, it is important to remember that a physician elected as coroner or appointed as medical examiner is accountable to the state’s medical board, the same as any other licensed doctor.
The Daily Standard, “County coroner’s medical license suspended,” Shelley Grieshop, Jan. 27, 2009
Lancaster County Coroner’s Office and City of Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office websites, accessed May 8, 2015