Social autopsy for maternal and child deaths: a comprehensive literature review to examine the concept and the development of the method

Popul Health Metr. 2011 Aug 5:9:45. doi: 10.1186/1478-7954-9-45.


"Social autopsy" refers to an interview process aimed at identifying social, behavioral, and health systems contributors to maternal and child deaths. It is often combined with a verbal autopsy interview to establish the biological cause of death. Two complementary purposes of social autopsy include providing population-level data to health care programmers and policymakers to utilize in developing more effective strategies for delivering maternal and child health care technologies, and increasing awareness of maternal and child death as preventable problems in order to empower communities to participate and engage health programs to increase their responsiveness and accountability.Through a comprehensive review of the literature, this paper examines the concept and development of social autopsy, focusing on the contributions of the Pathway Analysis format for child deaths and the Maternal and Perinatal Death Inquiry and Response program in India to social autopsy's success in meeting key objectives. The Pathway Analysis social autopsy format, based on the Pathway to Survival model designed to support the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness approach, was developed from 1995 to 2001 and has been utilized in studies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Adoption of the Pathway model has enriched the data gathered on care seeking for child illnesses and supported the development of demand- and supply-side interventions. The instrument has recently been updated to improve the assessment of neonatal deaths and is soon to be utilized in large-scale population-representative verbal/social autopsy studies in several African countries. Maternal death audit, starting with confidential inquiries into maternal deaths in Britain more than 50 years ago, is a long-accepted strategy for reducing maternal mortality. More recently, maternal social autopsy studies that supported health programming have been conducted in several developing countries. From 2005 to 2009, 10 high-mortality states in India conducted community-based maternal verbal/social autopsies with participatory data sharing with communities and health programs that resulted in the implementation of numerous data-driven maternal health interventions.Social autopsy is a powerful tool with the demonstrated ability to raise awareness, provide evidence in the form of actionable data and increase motivation at all levels to take appropriate and effective actions. Further development of the methodology along with standardized instruments and supporting tools are needed to promote its wide-scale adoption and use.