Moving from medical to health systems classifications of deaths: extending verbal autopsy to collect information on the circumstances of mortality

Glob Health Res Policy. 2016 Jun 15;1:2. doi: 10.1186/s41256-016-0002-y. eCollection 2016.


Background: Verbal autopsy (VA) is a health surveillance technique used in low and middle-income countries to establish medical causes of death (CODs) for people who die outside hospitals and/or without registration. By virtue of the deaths it investigates, VA is also an opportunity to examine social exclusion from access to health systems. The aims were to develop a system to collect and interpret information on social and health systems determinants of deaths investigated in VA.

Methods: A short set of questions on care pathways, circumstances and events at and around the time of death were developed and integrated into the WHO 2012 short form VA (SF-VA). Data were subsequently analysed from two census rounds in the Agincourt Health and Socio-Demographic Surveillance Site (HDSS), South Africa in 2012 and 2013 where the SF-VA had been applied. InterVA and descriptive analysis were used to calculate cause-specific mortality fractions (CSMFs), and to examine responses to the new indicators and whether and how they varied by medical CODs and age/sex sub-groups.

Results: One thousand two hundred forty-nine deaths were recorded in the Agincourt HDSS censuses in 2012-13 of which 1,196 (96 %) had complete VA data. Infectious and non-communicable conditions accounted for the majority of deaths (47 % and 39 % respectively) with smaller proportions attributed to external, neonatal and maternal causes (5 %, 2 % and 1 % respectively). 5 % of deaths were of indeterminable cause. The new indicators revealed multiple problems with access to care at the time of death: 39 % of deaths did not call for help, 36 % found care unaffordable overall, and 33 % did not go to a facility. These problems were reported consistently across age and sex sub-groups. Acute conditions and younger age groups had fewer problems with overall costs but more with not calling for help or going to a facility. An illustrative health systems interpretation suggests extending and promoting existing provisions for transport and financial access in this setting.

Conclusions: Supplementing VA with questions on the circumstances of mortality provides complementary information to CSMFs relevant for health planning. Further contextualisation of the method and results are underway with health systems stakeholders to develop the interpretation sequence as part of a health policy and systems research approach.

Keywords: Civil registration and vital statistics; Health surveillance; Health systems; Social determinants; South Africa; Verbal autopsy.