Background: Verbal Autopsy (VA) is widely viewed as the only immediate strategy for registering cause of death in much of Africa and Asia, where routine physician certification of deaths is not widely practiced. VA involves a lay interview with family or friends after a death, to record essential details of the circumstances. These data can then be processed automatically to arrive at standardized cause of death information.
Methods: The Population Health Metrics Research Consortium (PHMRC) undertook a study at six tertiary hospitals in low- and middle-income countries which documented over 12,000 deaths clinically and subsequently undertook VA interviews. This dataset, now in the public domain, was compared with the WHO 2012 VA standard and the InterVA-4 interpretative model.
Results: The PHMRC data covered 70% of the WHO 2012 VA input indicators, and categorized cause of death according to PHMRC definitions. After eliminating some problematic or incomplete records, 11,984 VAs were compared. Some of the PHMRC cause definitions, such as 'preterm delivery', differed substantially from the International Classification of Diseases, version 10 equivalent. There were some appreciable inconsistencies between the hospital and VA data, including 20% of the hospital maternal deaths being described as non-pregnant in the VA data. A high proportion of VA cases (66%) reported respiratory symptoms, but only 18% of assigned hospital causes were respiratory-related. Despite these issues, the concordance correlation coefficient between hospital and InterVA-4 cause of death categories was 0.61.
Conclusions: The PHMRC dataset is a valuable reference source for VA methods, but has to be interpreted with care. Inherently inconsistent cases should not be included when using these data to build other VA models. Conversely, models built from these data should be independently evaluated. It is important to distinguish between the internal and external validity of VA models. The effects of using tertiary hospital data, rather than the more usual application of VA to all-community deaths, are hard to evaluate. However, it would still be of value for VA method development to have further studies of population-based post-mortem examinations.