Background: Verbal autopsy (VA) is used to estimate the causes of death in areas with incomplete vital registration systems. The King and Lu method (KL) for direct estimation of cause-specific mortality fractions (CSMFs) from VA studies is an analysis technique that estimates CSMFs in a population without predicting individual-level cause of death as an intermediate step. In previous studies, KL has shown promise as an alternative to physician-certified verbal autopsy (PCVA). However, it has previously been impossible to validate KL with a large dataset of VAs for which the underlying cause of death is known to meet rigorous clinical diagnostic criteria.
Methods: We applied the KL method to adult, child, and neonatal VA datasets from the Population Health Metrics Research Consortium gold standard verbal autopsy validation study, a multisite sample of 12,542 VAs where gold standard cause of death was established using strict clinical diagnostic criteria. To emulate real-world populations with varying CSMFs, we evaluated the KL estimations for 500 different test datasets of varying cause distribution. We assessed the quality of these estimates in terms of CSMF accuracy as well as linear regression and compared this with the results of PCVA.
Results: KL performance is similar to PCVA in terms of CSMF accuracy, attaining values of 0.669, 0.698, and 0.795 for adult, child, and neonatal age groups, respectively, when health care experience (HCE) items were included. We found that the length of the cause list has a dramatic effect on KL estimation quality, with CSMF accuracy decreasing substantially as the length of the cause list increases. We found that KL is not reliant on HCE the way PCVA is, and without HCE, KL outperforms PCVA for all age groups.
Conclusions: Like all computer methods for VA analysis, KL is faster and cheaper than PCVA. Since it is a direct estimation technique, though, it does not produce individual-level predictions. KL estimates are of similar quality to PCVA and slightly better in most cases. Compared to other recently developed methods, however, KL would only be the preferred technique when the cause list is short and individual-level predictions are not needed.