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The Practicing Physician and the Medical Examiner | Print |

Some physicians may be confused as to their responsibility to the Medical Examiner. The purpose of this section is to clarify that responsibility.

The relationship between the Medical Examiner and the practicing physician can be mutually beneficial. The cooperation of physicians whose patients have become Medical Examiner cases is frequently instrumental in making an accurate certification of the cause of death. This is particularly true in supplying medical and psychological history and medical records. The Medical Examiner is often able to provide physicians with an accurate determination of the cause of death when an autopsy is performed.

The Medical Examiner's responsibilities do not revolve solely around certifying criminal deaths or serving in the prosecution of criminals. In practice, and as provided for in several Georgia Codes, the Medical Examiner inquires into deaths impartially to prepare a record of facts which are available to anyone whose lawful purpose requires them, whether these be for criminal or civil legal purposes, or other purposes that serve the public or an individual. Also, the Medical Examiner is charged with certifying the cause, manner (homicide, suicide, accident, natural, or undetermined), and circumstances of death which are reasonably accurate and acceptable for purposes of vital statistics.

When there has been no physician in attendance, there is obviously no one other than the Medical Examiner who can sign the death certificate. The Medical Examiner thus has clear authority to proceed with investigation in these cases. Where there has been previous medical attention, the attending physician may be required to provide the Medical Examiner with copies of the medical records and any other pertinent information that would assist the Medical Examiner in case management and disposition. The Medical Examiner has authority to subpoena such records. Evaluation of medical records and history form the basis and legal grounds for the Medical Examiner to decline jurisdiction or authorize further investigation an possible postmortem examination. The Medical Examiner will make the decision to accept or decline jurisdiction of a case based on the sum of the facts learned from the physician and evaluation of the circumstances surrounding death.

It is important to bear in mind that inquiry by the Medical Examiner or one of his/her investigators into the manner or mode of medical treatment is done to ascertain whether there are sufficient grounds for the Medical Examiner to proceed, or, to clarify the circumstances surrounding death, or, to assist in the evaluation of findings at postmortem examination. With rare exceptions, the primary purpose of such inquiry does not involve judgment or evaluation of the adequacy or propriety of any particular treatment.

Cases which the Medical Examiner finds are not within the jurisdiction of the office will be referred to the physician whose responsibility it is to sign the death certificate. The FCME will be happy to assist physicians with instruction for proper certification of death or provide references to educational materials. A tutorial on death certification is located on the internet at www.TheNAME.org (go to main menu and select "Help with Cause-of-Death Statements."

In most instances, the FCME is quite willing to discuss autopsy findings with any physician who was caring for the patient and may also provide a copy of the autopsy report if one is requested by the physician and there is no legal basis for denying such a request.


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Fulton County Medical Examiner

430 Pryor Street SW
Atlanta, Georgia 30312
Phone: 404-613-4400
Fax: 404-613-2463
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