Courts & Crime

Overworked, underpaid and scarce: Life in forensic pathology

In his 25-year career as a forensic pathologist, Dr. Mark Super has dodged bullets, rappelled down gullies and stepped on rattlesnakes on his way to examine bodies.

Few pathologists working in hospitals or private practices have those kinds of experiences. And doctors choosing to become forensic pathologists, after nearly a decade of schooling and training, are few and far between.

Super is one of three forensic pathologists at the Sacramento County Coroner's Office and one of 400 to 500 in the nation. The number isn't growing. "The need is way greater than that," Super said.

Why should a shortage of forensic pathologists matter?

"Deaths may not be properly investigated," said Dr. John Howard, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "A public health hazard may not be documented, recognized and addressed."

If a homicide is not properly investigated, someone "gets away with murder or remains unjustly accused of the crime," said Howard, one of two medical examiners in Spokane County, Wash. Families also do not get closure in a timely manner, Super said.

Howard and Super said many coroner's and medical examiner's offices are having a hard time recruiting forensic pathologists, especially as budgets are being slashed.

One reason that forensic pathology is not a popular choice among doctors is the pay.

A general pathologist working in a hospital or private practice can earn $100,000 more a year than a forensic pathologist working for a county or city agency, Super said. Sacramento County records show forensic pathologists earn $186,000 to $208,000 a year.

Another reason for the shortage of forensic pathologists is the job's demands. "The sights are gory, the smells are unpleasant oftentimes," Super said. "Sometimes the situations are flat-out dangerous."


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