Verbal autopsy in health policy and systems: a literature review

BMJ Glob Health. 2018 May 3;3(2):e000639. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000639. eCollection 2018.


Introduction: Estimates suggest that one in two deaths go unrecorded globally every year in terms of medical causes, with the majority occurring in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). This can be related to low investment in civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems. Verbal autopsy (VA) is a method that enables identification of cause of death where no other routine systems are in place and where many people die at home. Considering the utility of VA as a pragmatic, interim solution to the lack of functional CRVS, this review aimed to examine the use of VA to inform health policy and systems improvements.

Methods: A literature review was conducted including papers published between 2010 and 2017 according to a systematic search strategy. Inclusion of papers and data extraction were assessed by three reviewers. Thereafter, thematic analysis and narrative synthesis were conducted in which evidence was critically examined and key themes were identified.

Results: Twenty-six papers applying VA to inform health policy and systems developments were selected, including studies in 15 LMICs in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. The majority of studies applied VA in surveillance sites or programmes actively engaging with decision makers and governments in different ways and to different degrees. In the papers reviewed, the value of continuous collection of cause of death data, supplemented by social and community-based investigations and underpinned by electronic data innovations, to establish a robust and reliable evidence base for health policies and programmes was clearly recognised.

Conclusion: VA has considerable potential to inform policy, planning and measurement of progress towards goals and targets. Working collaboratively at sub-national, national and international levels facilitates data collection, aggregation and dissemination linked to routine information systems. When used in partnerships between researchers and authorities, VA can help to close critical information gaps and guide policy development, implementation, evaluation and investment in health systems.

Keywords: cause of death; health policy; population surveillance; systems research; verbal autopsy.