Medical Certification of Death 

Updated: Aug 04, 2016
  • Author: Randy L Hanzlick, MD; Chief Editor: Kim A Collins, MD, FCAP  more...
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Introduction and History

The World Health Organization (WHO), as part of its mission, develops standards for the collection and classification of mortality data so that international comparisons may be made. The United States is a signatory of the WHO and follows its policies, procedures, and regulations. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is responsible for the collection and analysis of mortality data in the United States. NCHS, through cooperative agreements with states, buys mortality data from the states.

To comply with WHO standards and to promote uniformity among the states, NCHS has developed and periodically revises the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death. To receive funds from NCHS for its data, each state must collect and provide death data in a format consistent with the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death, so the death certificate in each state appears somewhat similar to other states. Approximately 2.6 million deaths occur per year in the United States, and the NCHS receives information on virtually all of them.

This chapter contains basic principles that can be used to certify deaths (complete the cause of death section of the death certificate) in a professional manner. These principles are based largely on guidelines published by the National Center for Health Statistics and the College of American Pathologists. [1, 2, 3]

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Epidemiology

Death certificates are a valuable source for state-based and national mortality statistics. The mortality data published regularly by NCHS are based on information from every death certificate completed in the United States. These data are used to prioritize funding and programs geared toward prevention of death and conditions which cause death, and allocation of federal dollars for these purposes is based in part on such mortality data. Therefore, making death certificate information as complete and accurate as information allows is important. The most current national mortality data usually is for the calendar year 2 years prior to the current year.

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Definitions

Definitions of commonly used terminology in death certificates include the following:

  • Cause of death - The disease, injury, or combination of conditions that leads to the death of the individual
  • Manner of death - A classification of death based on how the cause of death was brought into play, with the typical options being natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined
  • Certifier of death - The physician, medical examiner, or coroner who completes the cause of death information and signs the death certificate attesting that, to the best of the certifier’s knowledge, the death of the named individual occurred at the date, time, place, and because of the causes as stated on the certificate
  • Underlying cause of death - The disease or condition that started the sequence of conditions ultimately resulting in death
  • Immediate cause of death - The disease or condition that results from the underlying cause and immediately results in death
  • Intermediate cause of death - A disease or condition that occurs between the underlying and immediate cause of death
  • Other significant condition - A pre-existing or co-existing condition that contributes to death but did not result in the underlying cause of death (These concepts will be clarified more fully later in this topic.)
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Common Misconceptions

Many people view the death certificate as unimportant and just another piece of paper that must be completed when a death occurs. Nothing is further from the truth. The importance of the death certificate to mortality statistics and program prioritization has already been discussed. But on the individual case level, the death certificate is used to settle estate and other matters and may also be used in legal proceedings.

A second misconception is that signing a death certificate may impose liability if the certifier is incorrect in reporting the cause of death. First, the death certificate is an opinion based on information available at the time the death certificate is completed. Second, lawsuits against certifiers of death are rare, and, when they do occur, the certifier is usually upheld. Third, death certificates can be changed (amended) if needed.

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Basic Principles

Each state has vital statistics regulations that require completion of a death certificate for each death that occurs, and those who "certify" deaths include the following:

  • A physician who cared for the decedent and has knowledge of the patient’s medical history and cause of death, typically certifying death only when death results solely from natural causes.
  • The medical examiner or coroner who investigated the death when death is due to non-natural causes, is sudden and unexplained (even if apparently from natural causes), is suspicious or unusual, or when no physician is present who can certify the death or under other special circumstances such as death in custody.
  • Depending on the jurisdiction or institution, the autopsy pathologist may sign the death certificate in lieu of the clinician in the hospital setting, or the coroner may rely upon the autopsy pathologist or medical examiner to provide wording or opinion about the cause and manner of death.
  • In some specific settings, nurses and other health care professionals may complete the death certificate for hospice patients, especially if no physician is available.

The death certificate has specific places to indicate the cause of death, manner of death, circumstances of death (such as dates, places, and how injury occurred [if injured]), and the certifier’s name and title.

The cause-of-death statement of the death certificate is reported using part I, in which a sequence of conditions leading to death may be reported, and part II, in which "Other Significant Conditions" may be reported if they contributed to death.

Part I

Part I usually consists of 3 or 4 lines on which a sequence of conditions may be reported, including the underlying cause of death, the immediate cause of death, and any intermediate cause(s) of death, as follows:

  • The "Underlying Cause of Death" is the condition (disease or injury) that started the downhill course of events leading to death (such as atherosclerotic coronary artery disease).
  • The "Immediate Cause of Death" is the condition that was last to occur, immediately resulted in the death, and was the result of the underlying cause of death (such as cardiac tamponade).
  • An "Intermediate Cause of Death" is a condition that was caused by the underlying cause of death and resulted in the immediate cause of death or another intermediary cause of death (such as ruptured myocardial infarct).

Thus, the cause-of-death statement using the conditions above would read:

Cardiac Tamponade

due to: Ruptured Myocardial Infarct

due to: Atherosclerotic Coronary Artery Disease

Part II

Part II is used to report one or more conditions that contributed to death, but did not result in the underlying cause of death reported in part I, these being referred to as "Other Significant Conditions." "Other Significant Conditions" in part II usually consist of coexisting, comorbid conditions or additional complications of the underlying cause of death that were less important than those reported in part I.

Thus, if the person described in the above example also had hypertension with left ventricular hypertrophy (which could increase oxygen demand and exacerbate the atherosclerotic heart disease), the cause-of-death statement could be written as follows:

Part I

Cardiac Tamponade

due to: Ruptured Myocardial Infarct

due to: Atherosclerotic Coronary Artery Disease

Part II (Other Significant Conditions): Hypertension with cardiac hypertrophy

In general, only one condition should be reported per line in part I, but reporting more than one condition in part II is acceptable. Examples of other cause-of-death statements are provided at the end of this section.

Another item on the death certificate is the manner of death. The typical options for manner of death are as follows:

  • Natural: Death results solely from disease and/or the aging process and no external cause (injury or poisoning) contributed to death.
  • Accident: An unintentional death results from an injury and/or poisoning, such deaths typically being unforeseen and not predictable as to time and place of occurrence.
  • Homicide: This is due to the volitional act of another person that is meant to cause injury, harm, fear, or death or as a result of the wanton disregard for human life.
  • Suicide: This is due to a self-inflicted act that was meant to do harm or cause one’s own death.
  • Undetermined (or "Could not be Determined"): Insufficient information exists to classify the manner of death into one of the other categories.

For each death, the manner of death must be specified. In some states, the manner of death is written in text form; in other states, a checkbox system is used. Familiarity with the death certificate form used in your state is important.

Mechanisms of death

Mechanisms of death may be loosely defined to include terminal events and nonspecific processes.

Terminal events

Terminal events are final common pathways of death and include such things as cardiopulmonary arrest, asystole, ventricular fibrillation, respiratory arrest, and electromechanical dissociation. In general, terminal events should not be reported on the death certificate because they are so common and nonspecific that they are essentially useless for mortality statistical purposes.

Nonspecific processes

Nonspecific Processes (NPs) consist of anatomic or physiologic abnormalities and include such things as pneumonia, cirrhosis, hyperkalemia, and many other conditions, each of which has multiple possible underlying causes and may be reported on the death certificate using the guidelines below.

NPs may be reported on the death certificate if they contributed to death. Preferably, these should be reported as an immediate or intermediate cause of death rather than an underlying cause of death. Reporting of a NP helps to clarify how the underlying cause resulted in death in the present patient compared with other possible options. In rare instances, reporting a NP alone may be necessary, but only if a reasonably certain underlying cause of death cannot be identified know that this should be done only when absolutely necessary.

Cause-of-death statement

The cause-of-death statement for deaths due to external causes can be constructed in a way analogous to those involving natural causes, but instead reporting the nonspecific process that caused death, the bodily trauma that caused the nonspecific process, and the injury event that caused the bodily trauma. In a case of cardiac tamponade that occurred from a penetrating injury of the heart because of a stab wound to the thorax, the cause of death statement could be reported as follows:

Cardiac tamponade

due to: Penetrating wound of heart

due to: Stab wound of thorax

When death is due to non-natural causes, the certifier must also complete additional items that explain the circumstances of death. The date and time of injury may be reported as actual, approximate, date and time found dead, or unknown. The "place of injury" is the type of place where the injury occurred (or where body was found), using generic terms such as "interstate highway," "fast-food restaurant," etc. The "location of injury" is the street name, number, zip, city, and county where the injury occurred (or body was found). "Injury at work" is a Yes or No answer indicating if the fatal injury occurred while the decedent was on the job—usually in the setting of an employee/employer relationship.

"How injury occurred" is a concise statement of how the fatal injury occurred, using generic terms, such as "Driving small car, lost control, struck tree." A place exists to indicate whether an autopsy was performed and whether the autopsy findings were considered when the death certificate was completed. The autopsy question should be answered "Yes" even if only a partial (or limited) autopsy was performed, and the nature of the limited autopsy can be reported as shown in the example at the end of this chapter. Space exists to report the duration of each condition reported in part I of the cause-of-death statement but whether this is required depends on policy in the involved jurisdiction.

Remember that in most jurisdictions, if the manner of death is other than natural, the death certificate should be completed by or at the direction of the medical examiner or coroner.

The cause of death and death certificate are not written in stone and can be changed (amended) if needed. [4, 5] In general, the time between an injury and death does not impact on the manner of death if the immediate cause of death resulted from the injury (eg, a man who dies 10 years after being shot by another person, and was quadriplegic with recurrent sepsis which ultimately caused death, would still be classified as homicide). The "but-for" paradigm can be used in most cases to determine manner of death (eg, "but-for the gunshot wound 10 years ago, the person would not have died at the time he did and of the causes stated"). In general, if an injury or poisoning caused, contributed, or hastened death, preference is given to the non-natural manner of death. Rarely, a condition that is separate and distinct from the presumed underlying event "breaks the chain" and serves as an intervening cause of death (such as someone in the hospital because of a traffic accident but is then euthanized by a "mercy killer.")

Some jurisdictions have special categories for manner of death (such as Oregon, having an "Other" category for physician-assisted suicides, or "Unclassified" in some states for recreational drug use deaths, or "Complications of Therapy" in some jurisdictions for deaths involving adverse outcomes of treatment).

Whether or not to include statements such as "Collision of motor vehicles" in part I (in addition to other more specific causes) is a matter of space and personal preference, although for lay readers of the death certificate this method may be helpful.

Some states are involved in projects that will enable the electronic certification and registration of death (internet based) instead of using paper copies. [6] The principles are generally the same as described in this chapter.

Strictly adhering to guidelines for cause-of-death statements is not always possible, and some cases require atypical approaches.

Classification of manner of death can be quite controversial, but some general truths include the following:

  • Acute recreational drug use deaths are typically classified as accidents. [7]
  • Effects of chronic substance or drug use are usually classified as natural.
  • Autoerotic asphyxial or drug-related deaths are usually classified as accidents.
  • Russian roulette deaths are usually classified as suicide, but some classify them as accidents.
  • Deaths resulting from police restraint are usually classified as homicide.
  • Some deaths during restraint involve significant drug intoxication or underlying disease and may be classified as other than homicide.
  • Anaphylaxis to insects, drugs, and other external factors are usually certified as accidents.
  • Hit and run pedestrian fatalities are usually certified as accidents, but some jurisdictions classify them as homicide or vehicular homicide.
  • Deaths that immediately result from fright induced by another or from minor assault are usually classified as homicide, but the timing is quite important.
  • Manner of death is frequently dependent on issues that are not evident at autopsy and relevant police, investigative, and other information are critical to appropriately classifying manner of death.
  • Many manner of death classifications are straight-forward, or are done as a matter of conventions, while others are more controversial.
  • Being familiar with the National Association of Medical Examiners’ "Guide for Manner of Death Classification" is important; this guide addresses many issues related to manner of death and provides guidance for certain types of scenarios. [3]

Death certification examples

The examples below are intended to represent well-written cause-of-death statements and death certifications, which should be complete and clear enough that the story of the death is apparent without a case history. The format is similar to the death certificate used in each state.

Table 1. Death Certification, Example 1 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Hemorrhage of esophageal varices Interval between onset and death



Hours



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B. Cirrhosis of liver



Years
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C. Chronic alcoholism



Decades
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:
Autopsy? (Yes or No)



Yes



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)



Yes



Manner of Death



Natural



Date of Injury Describe how injury occurred Hour of Injury
Injury at Work? (Yes or No) Place of Injury Location

 

Table 2. Death Certification, Example 2 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Metastatic small cell carcinoma of lung Interval between onset and death



Approx 3 years



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B.



 
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C.



 
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:



Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause of death in Part I



Autopsy? (Yes or No)



No



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)
Manner of Death



Natural



Date of Injury Describe how injury occurred Hour of Injury
Injury at Work? (Yes or No) Place of Injury Location

 

Table 3. Death Certification, Example 3 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Subarachnoid hemorrhage Interval between onset and death



Minutes



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B. Ruptured berry aneurysm



Years
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C.



 
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:



Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause of death in Part I



Autopsy? (Yes or No)



Yes



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)



Yes



Manner of Death



Natural



Date of Injury Describe how injury occurred Hour of Injury
Injury at Work? (Yes or No) Place of Injury Location

 

Table 4. Death Certification, Example 4 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Systemic sepsis Interval between onset and death



Days



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B. Infected decubitus ulcers



Weeks
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C. Senile dementia and bedridden state



Years
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:



Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause of death in Part I



Diabetes mellitus, peripheral vascular disease



Autopsy? (Yes or No)



No



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)
Manner of Death



Natural



Date of Injury Describe how injury occurred Hour of Injury
Injury at Work? (Yes or No) Place of Injury Location

 

Table 5. Death Certification, Example 5 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Atlanto-occipital dislocation Interval between onset and death



Minutes



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B. Blunt force injury of head



Minutes
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C. Motorcycle Accident



Minutes
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:



Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause of death in Part I



Autopsy? (Yes or No)



Yes



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)



Yes



Manner of Death



Accident



Date of Injury



10/11/2009



Describe how injury occurred



Helmeted motorcycle operator which lost control and struck power utility pole



Hour of Injury



2150



Injury at Work? (Yes or No)



No



Place of Injury



City Street



Location



2 Alice Street, SW, Atlanta, GA 30312



 

Table 6. Death Certification, Example 6 (Open Table in a new window)

Part I A. Intrathoracic hemorrhage Interval between onset and death



Minutes



  Due to, or as a consequence of:



B. Dissection of ascending aorta



Hours
  Due to, or as a consequence of:



C. Hypertension



Years
Part II OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS:



Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause of death in Part I



Atherosclerotic vascular disease



Autopsy? (Yes or No)



Yes



If yes, were autopsy findings considered in determining cause of death? (Yes or No)



Yes - Limited Autopsy



Manner of Death



Natural



Date of Injury Describe how injury occurred Hour of Injury
Injury at Work? (Yes or No) Place of Injury Location

 

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Issues Arising in Court

Typically, when a death certificate is introduced in a legal proceeding such as a court trial, the certifier of death is asked to verify that the certificate is authentic. The witness may be asked to indicate his/her opinion of the cause and manner of death as indicated on the death certificate. The death certificate, however, is used more to prove the fact of death (that death actually occurred) rather than serving as proof of the cause and manner of death.

As mentioned previously, occasional lawsuits arise regarding a cause or manner of death reported on the death certificate. [8] Usually these have involved suicides. Most often, the opinion of the certifier is upheld.

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