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Utah Office of the Medical Examiner

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Medical Examiner?

A medical examiner is a physician who has undergone specific subspecialty training in the area of forensic pathology and medicolegal death investigation. 

The first step in becoming a Medical Examiner is the completion of medical school and receiving an M.D. or D.O. degree.

The second step is completing years of training in an accredited anatomic and/or clinical pathology residency program.  This training serves as a background in the study of pathology, or the examination of tissues and fluids to establish the diagnosis of disease processes.

The final step is a fellowship, a year of sub-specialty training specific to forensic pathology, tapered to the performance of autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death.  The fellowship year provides specific training in the diagnosis, interpretation, causation and consequences of injuries.  The training also includes diagnosing disease processes, interpreting laboratory and toxicology results and determining their contribution to the death of an individual.  

Following each step of the training process, a medical examiner must complete board certification examinations to demonstrate competency in the fields of pathology and forensic pathology.

Some jurisdictions outside of Utah function under the guidance of a coroner.  A coroner may or may not have any medical background or training and is elected or appointed to his/her position.  The coroner in those jurisdictions is responsible for certifying the cause and manner of death on a death certificate.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Forensic Pathology?

Forensic pathology is a sub-specialty of pathology (a sub-specialty of medicine) involved in the investigation and examination of deaths due to sudden or unusual circumstances.  In Utah these deaths are defined by the Utah Medical Examiner Act Utah Code Section 26-4-7.

Forensics pathology involves the application of dissection and other techniques, diagnostic testing and the understanding of pathology in general.  This will aid the medical examiner in the diagnosis and interpretation of disease processes and/or injuries.  These findings are then viewed in conjunction with information from a scene investigation, the medical history of the individual and other ancillary tests. Although the majority of this training is applied to the dead, expertise in this field is occasionally applied to the living.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Should I Know About an Autopsy?

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a systematic examination of a body after death conducted by a forensic pathologist.  The pathologist looks for disease or injury that may have caused or contributed to the death. In order to do this, incisions are carefully made on the body to explore the head, neck, chest and abdomen.  Removed organs are examined individually. Small samples of each organ are routinely retained in case additional testing is necessary. The remaining organs are returned with the body for burial or cremation. During the procedure, samples of body fluids and organs are obtained for toxicology or other analysis. Documentation of findings during the exam are done by handwritten notes, diagrams and photography.

When is an autopsy necessary?

Not everyone that is brought to the OME requires a full autopsy. The extent of the examination is determined by the assigned forensic pathologist. When the documentation of disease or trauma is critical to the final determination of death an autopsy is performed. An autopsy may also be necessary in the collection of evidence within the body or to document and/or retrieve anatomic or prosthetic features that will assist in the identification of an individual.

How long does an autopsy take?

In an uncomplicated autopsy the examination can be performed in a little over an hour. The documentation of injuries as well as the collection of evidence may prolong the length of the autopsy. All autopsies are performed at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Salt Lake City.

How much does an autopsy cost?

The services provided by the OME are free to the family.  Our office is under the direction of the Utah Department of Health and as such we are taxpayer funded.  There should be no costs incurred by a family for having the OME take jurisdiction.  Transportation costs are reimbursed to funeral homes on a per loaded mile basis or at a contracted service fee to bring or pick up a loved one.

Will an autopsy prevent an open casket viewing?

No. The incisions used for an autopsy are made in locations of the body that can be readily hidden from view. Every effort is made by the autopsy staff to not disfigure the body.  Similar care is taken during organ and tissue recovery for donation.

What does the autopsy report include?

An autopsy report is the written documentation of the findings from the autopsy and final conclusions.  The report includes the final determination of cause and manner of death, a listing of key findings (disease processes, traumatic injuries, and additional investigative or anatomic findings) and toxicology results.  The main text of the report includes detailed descriptions of the external physical findings, medical intervention, identifying features, trauma (if present), and a specific description of each internal organ examined.

Frequently Asked Questions

When Will the Cause of Death Be Finalized?

The forensic pathologist can sometimes determine the cause of death and issue a final death certificate following the initial examination. If additional tests or investigation is necessary to certify the death, a ‘Pending’ death certificate will be issued.  These additional tests may take several weeks for analysis. Thank you for your patience.

An amended death certificate will be issued listing the final cause of death when the autopsy report is finalized.  Official copies of the amended death certificate may be obtained from the funeral home that handled your arrangements, the local health department or the Office of Vital Records in Salt Lake City.  A listing of local health departments can be found here.

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