A forensic pathologist is a highly qualified doctor who specialises in investigating an unexpected death by examining the dead person's body in detail. A forensic pathologist's work may involve attending the scene of a death before the body is removed if the police and forensic scientists have suspicions about the circumstances. Forensic pathologists advise the police, forensic scientists and lawyers after an autopsy (post-mortem examination) has been conducted and may also have to give evidence of their findings to coroners and at criminal courts.
Besides conducting autopsies, a forensic pathologist determines the cause of an unexpected death even if it is not suspicious. Typical circumstances may include a medical overdose, alcohol or drug abuse, or if there are concerns about medical treatment. Forensic pathologists are registered with the Home Office and work within a regional practice. Their work is governed by the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Royal College of Pathologists in England and Wales. Like all doctors, they must keep up to date in their field and regularly prove they are competent to practise.
A forensic pathologist's typical work activities include:
- analysing drugs and other substances in body fluids (forensic toxicology)
- examining skeletons to identify and detect injuries (forensic anthropology)
- examining teeth to identify a body and interpreting bite marks (forensic odontology)
- identifying flies and the development of maggots to determine a person's time of death (forensic entomology)
- giving evidence in court
- performing an autopsy
- teaching registrars
- writing up reports.
Although they are registered with the Home Office and work with the police, a forensic pathologist is impartial. They may be self-employed or may be employed by a university hospital or a hospital trust. A forensic pathologist's day may start at the scene of a crime or sudden death, and move to a mortuary, and laboratory office before they address medical students in a lecture theatre. They will make regular visits to law courts and police stations, dealing with lawyers and police officers as well as coroners.
Most forensic pathologists work shift patterns on a rota to cover on-call 24 hours a day. Hours can be irregular, for example if they need to examine a body at the place of death at night, or if they have to travel to give evidence at court.
Forensic pathologists in the UK train as doctors first before specialising in pathology and forensic histopathology. This is a key difference between forensic pathologists and forensic scientists.
Once qualified, a forensic pathologist may work for a university hospital as a consultant in histopathology as well as performing their investigations in legal cases. They may also choose to work in private practice so that they can retain their impartiality, for example if they are investigating medical malpractice cases. In England and Wales forensic pathologists are accredited by the Home Office and carry out autopsies with police in attendance under the authority of a coroner. In Scotland, two pathologists must be present at an autopsy and they work under the authority of the procurator fiscal. As well as giving evidence in criminal cases, forensic pathologists may give evidence on behalf of a defendant or give their expert opinion in civil cases. Forensic pathologists work in tandem with other specialist pathologists, as well as the police and lawyers.
Forensic pathologists may be members of The Association of Clinical Pathologists, The British Association of Forensic Medicine, or The Faculty of Forensic & Legal Medicine. Jobs may be advertised in the British Medical Journal and its online equivalent, on hospital trust websites and in local and national newspapers.
Personal Qualities and Skills
Key skills for forensic pathologists
- Good communication skills with professionals in both medicine and law
- Able to work alone but also good at working with other specialists
- Excellent analytical skills
- Good problem solving skills
- Good diagnostic skills
- Good manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination
- Excellent attention to detail
- Good time management
- Team leading capabilities.
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of forensic pathologists
- NHS Trusts
- Specialist private practices.
Qualifications and training required
You can only start specialist training to become a forensic pathologist once you have qualified as a doctor.
Training as a forensic pathologist
The current process to train as a consultant forensic pathologist typically involves the following...
Medical degree an approved course of usually five or six years, followed by two years of foundation training (F1 and F2). This is general training in different areas and specialties of medicine in a hospital setting. Years F1 and F2 are followed by two years of specialist training (ST1-2) covering histopathology before entering the forensic histopathology curriculum (ST3-onwards). This professional experience and training includes examinations at various stages and supervised learning events (SLEs). All doctors have to demonstrate their fitness to practice and gain continuous professional development (CPD) points throughout the year in order to stay registered with the GMC.
Applying for medical degree courses
If you are considering applying for a medical degree, most medical schools require GCSEs, AS and A levels or the equivalent, with very good grades (AAA) in chemistry and biology plus one other rigorous A level, which could be in a non-science-related subject, such as a language, music or geography. You'll also need another science or mathematics at AS level. Scottish applicants should have at least four Scottish Highers at grades AAAA by the end of S5 to include English language, and any science subject, plus at least two Advanced Highers in two subjects in S6; or three Advanced Highers including chemistry or biology, a second science (chemistry, biology maths or physics) plus one other rigorous academic subject. Other routes into medicine are available: students who don't have the required A levels could study a six-year degree which includes a foundation year or pre-clinical course; students with an existing degree and relevant experience can study an intensive four-year medical degree.
Proof of commitment to medicine is usually sought by medical schools as a first step to gaining a place on a course. This could be demonstrated by a strong personal statement and practical evidence, such as work shadowing, regularly visiting elderly residents at a care home, or volunteering at a charitable organisation. Many universities and medical schools require candidates to sit the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and applicants are usually, but not always, called to a face-to-face interview or assessment ahead of a university offering a place.