Background: Medico-legal death investigations are a recognised data source for public health endeavours and its accessibility has increased following the development of electronic data systems. Despite time and cost savings, the strengths and limitations of this method and impact on research findings remain untested. This study examines this issue using the National Coronial Information System (NCIS).
Methods: PubMed, ProQuest and Informit were searched to identify publications where the NCIS was used as a data source for research published during the period 2000-2014. A descriptive analysis was performed to describe the frequency and characteristics of the publications identified. A content analysis was performed to identify the nature and impact of strengths and limitations of the NCIS as reported by researchers.
Results: Of the 106 publications included, 30 reported strengths and limitations, 37 reported limitations only, seven reported strengths only and 32 reported neither. The impact of the reported strengths of the NCIS was described in 14 publications, whilst 46 publications discussed the impacts of limitations. The NCIS was reported to be a reliable source of quality, detailed information with comprehensive coverage of deaths of interest, making it a powerful injury surveillance tool. Despite these strengths, researchers reported that open cases and missing information created the potential for selection and reporting biases and may preclude the identification and control of confounders.
Conclusions: To ensure research results are valid and inform health policy, it is essential to consider and seek to overcome the limitations of data sources that may have an impact on results.
Keywords: Coroners and medical examiners; Injury prevention; Mortality surveillance; National Coronial Information System Public health research.