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A forensic pathologist studies corpses in order to provide services such as identifying the deceased and determining a cause of death. The cause of death can be questioned in cases of an unnatural death such as homicide, whether the person had committed suicide or not, if the cause of death is undetermined or whether there is a question over whether the death was natural or not.
The examination of a corpse for determining the cause of death is called a post-mortem or autopsy. During the autopsy, the forensic specialist examines the body to determine whether any injuries exist that haven't been noted as obvious by the police, such as a stab wound, damage caused by a bullet wound or ligature marks on the neck. The specialist will also examine the organs of the deceased for any injuries or abnormalities such as foreign particles in the lungs, stomach contents and swelling of the brain. Toxicological analysis on body tissues and fluids will also be done to determine whether the deceased had accidentally overdosed or had been deliberately poisoned. The specialist will also be collecting and examining tissue specimens under the microscope to determine whether the deceased had any pre-existing diseases, as well as other findings such as gunpowder residue around a gunshot wound.
The forensic pathologist will then be compiling a report that will include the doctor's opinion about the disease, injury or pathological process that either directly or indirectly resulted in the person's death. The doctor will then be able to make an objective finding on what the cause of death was. This will help in numerous situations such as families getting closure and in cases where foul play needs to be investigated further by the police.
In order to become a forensic pathologist, a doctor has to complete their undergraduate training which takes 5-6 years to accomplish. This is followed by a 1-2 year internship training phase that needs to be completed before a medical council allows the doctor to apply for a specialist position.
A specialist candidate will then apply for a position in the residency programme of anatomical pathology which takes 5 years to complete. Thereafter, the doctor will apply for a fellowship position to sub-specialise in forensic pathology and this training takes 2 years to complete. Essentially, a doctor will train and practice for up to 15 years to become a forensic pathologist.
Non-clinical duties of a Forensic pathologist
Where criminal or civil cases are involved, a forensic pathologist will be expected to give evidence in court regarding their findings of the deceased. They will be called either by the defense or state to give their opinion on what may have happened to the deceased in question. This can be quite a stressful time as the doctor's findings can have an impact on numerous other people's lives.
The training that is offered by the institution, where the forensic pathologist gained their qualification, does make provisions for this and they do include sessions with psychologists so that the specialist can be mentally prepared for these cases.