Discovery Fit & Health
Armed with little more than book smarts, a baby-blue sweater and a strong sense of moral rectitude, Dr. Quincy of the show "Quincy M.E." made being a forensic pathologist downright exciting. The weekly crime drama from the early 1980s taught an entire generation about how doctors working for the police can crack tough cases wide open. In the process, it laid the foundation for future cop shows that challenge our inner geek. But in real life, autopsies aren't just for gory criminal cases. They are often requested by family members to determine cause of death, or a hospital may require an autopsy if the patient's cause of death was undetermined [source: FamilyDoctor]. These autopsies are performed by general pathologists, and the victims in police investigations get examined by forensic pathologists.
The average autopsy -- including paperwork -- takes approximately four hours to complete. The external examination of the autopsy, which involves both dictation and paperwork, lasts about half an hour. However, the internal examination of an autopsy will last from one to two hours. If the investigation is part of a complex homicide case, the autopsy could take four to six hours to complete.
The old pathologists' joke boasts that they're the only doctors whose patients don't complain. That may be true, but every dead body has a story to tell. Examining wounds in a homicide case can be one of the most challenging elements of an autopsy because the medical examiner must use his or her experience and skill to identify the exact nature and cause of the wound. The level of difficulty in this effort can increase depending on the weapon used or the wound itself. If a gun was used, the paths and angle of each bullet and the number of weapons fired must be identified. If someone was bludgeoned to death, there may be multiple injuries, several patterns of injury may be present, and the perpetrator may also have used several different weapons. Because of these variables, the medical examiner will become an expert at identifying patterns of injury and trauma through years of experience. In a noncriminal case they will likely be examining organs to determine the patient's cause of death.
Forensic pathologists typically spend 13 to 15 years studying their field of expertise, and they must learn many subjects like DNA, arms and ballistics, blood analysis, and toxicology for their lab work [source: ExploreHealthCareers]. That sounds like an extensive course load, but nothing less than guilt or innocence may rest on their final report.
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