Death Certificates: New Tools Make a Tough Task Easier

Lee A. Flagg, PhD; Paula A. Braun, MS; Jessica L. Alexander; Robert N. Anderson, PhD


November 08, 2019

Editorial Collaboration

Medscape &

Filling out a death certificate is the final act of patient care. The detailed information that is included matters—to grieving families, to your clinical practice, to research, and to all of public health.

To help you formulate a cause of death that is both complete and accurate, the National Center for Health Statistics offers a mobile app and online training course. These tools can help you avoid queries and amendments due to poorly written cause-of-death statements, which saves you valuable time in the long run.

Why It Matters to Consider the Cause of Death 

The more accurate and detailed the information on death certificates, the better our ability to understand, prevent, and treat diseases. Here are three reasons why the accuracy of a death certificate is important:

  1. Documenting complete and accurate information about the death honors the patient and the patient's family. It may help grieving families better understand the death and find closure, and it allows survivors to get the life insurance or funeral benefits that they are due.

  2. Death certificates are one of the primary sources we have for public health surveillance data. This information is often our first alert to major threats, such as the opioid overdose epidemic.

  3. Accurate and specific cause-of-death information helps direct funding for clinical and biomedical research and public health programs to the right places, affecting which diseases we study and how we can better prevent or treat them. For example, knowing which types of cancer deaths are most common informs where prevention and treatment efforts could focus.

Tools for Improving Reporting Cause of Death

The Cause of Death Mobile App is a quick reference guide with instructions for filling out a death certificate, including examples. The app:

  • Describes how to report cause of death, particularly how to complete Parts I and II of the death certificate;

  • Provides guidance for common problems in reporting cause of death; and

  • Offers a variety of case histories with example certifications to help medical certifiers learn best practices when reporting cause of death.

The app can be downloaded to a mobile phone or tablet (available for Android and iOS) for quick access at any point in the certification process.

The Improving Cause of Death Reporting online training module provides an overview of the vital registration system and the critical role that physicians play in making it work. It also provides training on:

  • How cause-of-death information is used;

  • How to write cause-of-death statements;

  • When to refer cases to the medical examiner or coroner; and

  • Where to access additional resources.

Medical certifiers can earn free CME credits by registering for the course, completing the training, passing the post-test, and filling out a short evaluation.

Getting the cause of death right is challenging but is a vital aspect of patient care. The mobile app and online training module are designed to help physicians make these critical decisions more easily.


Cause of Death Mobile App: Apple App Store and Google Play store
Improving Cause of Death Reporting Online Training Module

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube