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When the Death Certificate Omits the True Cause of Death

In a research review published in the magazine Today’s Geriatric Medicine, Dr. Emily Carter, a geriatrician affiliated with the Maine Medical Center, and co-authors noted that the data submitted on death certificates can affect families with regard to life insurance, estate settlement, genetic risk factors and finding closure. They estimate that major errors, like incorrect cause or manner of death, occur in 33 to 40 percent of death certificates that are completed at academic institutions like their own in the United States.

An analysis of death certificates at their own institution found that cardiac or respiratory arrest were incorrectly entered as the immediate cause of death on 11 of the 50 documents they reviewed. As Dr. Gill said, “Everyone who dies, dies of cardiopulmonary arrest. The critical question is: Why did this happen? Let’s say someone dies of a stomach hemorrhage. What caused it? Stomach cancer, an ulcer or what?”

There are many reasons for the high rate of inaccurate or incomplete death certificates, starting with the meager attention paid to the subject in medical school and the hectic pace in many medical settings. Speed is sometimes dictated by the need to release a body to a funeral home for burial or cremation.

The C.D.C. has estimated that 20 to 30 percent of death certificates, though not necessarily inaccurate, “have issues with completeness.” The agency stated that heavy workloads, insufficient information about a death or inadequate training can result in death certificates that are incomplete or inaccurate.

Furthermore, many deaths are certified by coroners, who are elected or appointed to their positions and may have bachelor’s degrees in forensic science, but are usually not doctors. They can be subject to political or family influence and may fail, for example, to list opioid overdose as a cause of death. Even when death certificates are completed by medical examiners, who are usually doctors, they may not be trained in forensic pathology and could miss the real cause of death. A death following a fall, for example, might have been accidental, or it could have resulted from an underlying disease or even homicide.

According to a blog post from Womble Bond Dickinson, a trans-Atlantic law firm with headquarters in London, “the death certificate may be critical in a lawsuit” to help determine “the nature of the death,” factors that contributed to it, when it occurred and illnesses that may have played a role.

If the death was the result of a medical illness, the death certificate is usually completed by the physician in charge, Dr. Carter and her colleagues wrote in their review. However, they emphasized, a medical examiner should certify all other causes, including deaths related to hip fracture which could have resulted from an accident, and deaths related to a history of malicious injury that could be a homicide.

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