The primary role of the medical examiner is to investigate the deaths of individuals in Clark County over which they have jurisdiction; the purpose of the investigation is to determine the cause and manner of death.
The medical examiner does not investigate all deaths in Clark County. In 2020, there were 4,246 deaths in Clark County. The Medical Examiner’s Office assumed jurisdiction of 554 deaths – or 13% of the total deaths that occurred in 2020.
Washington state statute outlines under which circumstances the medical examiner has jurisdiction to investigate a death. The types of deaths over which the medical examiner has jurisdiction include those resulting from:
- suspicious circumstances (e.g. homicide, suicide, hanging)
- sudden death of a person in good health
- unknown or obscure causes (e.g. bodies found dead)
- unnatural or unlawful means (e.g. drowning, smothering, starvation, narcotics)
- while in jail or prison
In certain circumstances, the medical examiner also has jurisdiction to investigate deaths that may pose a threat to public health, such as when the diagnosis is undetermined, and the suspected cause of death is a contagious disease that may pose a public health hazard. Very few COVID-19 deaths meet these criteria. Most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) have progressive signs and symptoms of illness and are diagnosed prior to their death. In 2020, the Medical Examiner’s Office investigated eight deaths that were directly or indirectly related to COVID-19 infection.
When the medical examiner does have authority to investigate a death, the investigation is usually performed in conjunction with a law enforcement agency. As part of the investigation, the medical examiner collects information about the circumstances surrounding the death and reviews the medical and social histories of the person who died. An autopsy may also be required in some circumstances. In 2020, the medical examiner performed autopsies in 37% of cases investigated.
When the medical examiner assumes jurisdiction, they are also responsible for completing the medical certification portion of the death certificate, which identifies the cause and manner of death. For deaths that do not fall under the authority of the medical examiner, the medical certification portion of the death certificate is completed by a health care provider who was treating the person or the health care provider who pronounced the death. Death certificates are completed by the funeral home and filed with Clark County Vital Records. For information on obtaining a death certificate, contact Vital Records. The Medical Examiner's Office does not issue death certificates.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office is fully accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners and has maintained accreditation since 2005. The office provides services as needed seven days a week. In addition to serving Clark County residents, the office contracts with Klickitat and Skamania counties to provide forensic autopsy services.
For more information about medical examiner investigations, read the 2020 Annual Report.
Walk-In office hours are 9AM - 5PM Monday through Thursday.
Forensic pathologist shortage
Medical examiners, also called forensic pathologists, are licensed physicians with specialty training and certification in forensic pathology. They investigate deaths, perform forensic medical autopsies, and determine the cause and manner of death for unexpected, accidental, suspicious, and violent deaths.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office is led by a chief medical examiner who is supported by a team of death investigators, autopsy assistants and office staff. The office is currently recruiting to fill the vacant associate medical examiner position.
The U.S. is experiencing a national shortage of forensic pathologists. The number of people pursuing careers in forensic pathology is not keeping pace with growing community populations and rising death rates. Nationwide, there are only about 500 board-certified forensic pathologists practicing full time, but the U.S. needs an estimated 1,100 to 1,200 to adequately handle the demand for forensic autopsies.
In Clark County, the number of deaths reported to the Medical Examiner’s Office continues to outpace population growth. From 2010 to 2020, deaths in Clark County increased 41% and the number of deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner’s Office increased by 59%. During that time, the county’s population only increased by 17%.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office remains committed to providing accurate and thorough investigations for all deaths under its jurisdiction.