What is the Difference Between a Medical Examiner and a Coroner?

Medical Examiners and Coroners are distinct titles referring to individuals who complete somewhat similar or overlapping roles, but have very different histories and current-day training and qualifications.

Coroners have existed for centuries, with the term originally referring to the "Crowner", whose job was to ensure that upon death the appropriate taxes were paid to the King (Crown). Modern coroners inquire into the cause and manner of a death, and often complete the death certificate. Across the U.S., coroners are usually elected laypersons who may or may not have medical training, depending on local statutes. Coroners may also be appointed, again depending on statutes, and may also have roles such as law enforcement or prosecuting attorney. Coroners are frequently not pathologists, and therefore must obtain the services of a forensic pathologist, often by contract, for autopsies and medical expertise to support the coroner's investigations.  In this region, the Sheriff and Sheriff’s deputies serve as coroners in the rural California and Nevada counties and refer cases for postmortem examinations at the Washoe County Regional Medical Examiner's Office.  Our office serves 13 Nevada and 5 California counties. 

Medical Examiner systems, by contrast, usually do not include a Coroner.  Medical Examiners are generally not elected, but appointed to their positions, and are always physicians, usually forensic pathologists, who have specialized training in death investigation.  Medical Examiners can manage a medicolegal death investigation office, perform death investigations, complete autopsies, interpret toxicology and other laboratory testing results, collect and document evidence, and provide expert testimony.  The Medical Examiner system therefore is considered by many to be a modern, streamlined approach to death investigation, and the likely future trend of death investigation in the U.S.  Over half of the U.S. population is currently served by Medical Examiner systems. 

Washoe County converted its Coroner system to a Medical Examiner system in 2007, by county ordinance.  Nevada Revised Statutes require that each county have a Coroner, but leave the details of the death investigation system to the counties to determine.  The Washoe County Chief Medical Examiner also holds the appointed title of Coroner; however, the office functions as a Medical Examiner office.