Causes of Death Coding in COVID-19 Pandemic

Reporting causes of death is an important function in our society, and involves a number of people in completing each death certificate:

  • Pronouncer of death – may be a physician
  • Certifier of death – usually a physician; assigns cause of death
  • Funeral director – completes the demographic information, next of kin, and burial information portions of the death certificate
  • Local registrar or health department – registers the death certificate, and has long term management responsibility of same

The Office of Vital Statistics performs statistical analysis and reports on the mortality data, which are used in many ways, including surveillance of diseases, tracking of national deaths in emergencies and pandemics, and to justify health spending. Any misinformation along the way will impact not only the individual death certificate, but also all the data that includes that death certificate.

Death certificates are legal records. The physician as certifier of death “determines and accurately records the sequence of medical conditions that resulted in death. When the physician signs the certificate, he or she has legally certified that, to the best of his or her knowledge, the individual died for the reasons listed under the cause of death.” (CDC online course on “Improving Cause of Death Reporting (Web Based),” WB2959)

The Cause of Death (COD) portion of the death certificate entails two main sections. Part Ia is where the immediate cause of death is listed, and subsections Ib, Ic, and Id detail the sequence of events, listed backwards in time, that culminated in the proximate cause of death. Any other diseases or conditions that may have contributed to the person’s demise are listed in Part II.   The COD is the important part of the death certificate as far as vital statistics are concerned. The use of “suspected,” “probable,” or “possible” has been previously discouraged in the listed COD on death certificates. In fact, the above-referenced course currently offered by the CDC does not include such possibilities.

But that has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization issued its International Guidelines for Certification and Classification (Coding) of COVID-19 as Cause of Death on 20 April 2020.  They declared, “A death due to COVID-19 is defined for surveillance purposes as a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness . . .” New ICD-10 codes have been developed. For cases in which the virus has been identified, the code is U07.1; and when it has not been identified, but COVID-19 is “probable” or “suspected,” the code is U07.2. (p. 8/14).

The CDC’s National Vital Statistics, likewise, published new “Guidance for Certifying Deaths Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” in April.  They indicated that the Underlying Cause of Death (UCOD) “should be reported on the lowest line used in Part I” of the death certificate. Although the document encourages testing if possible, the completion of a death certificate does not require it:

In cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID–19 cannot be made, but it is suspected or likely (e.g., the circumstances are compelling within a   reasonable degree of certainty), it is acceptable to report COVID–19 on a  death certificate as “probable” or “presumed.”

The advice goes further, to say that if COVID-19 is involved, “it is likely the UCOD and thus, it should be reported on the lowest line used in Part I of the death certificate.”

What are the ramifications of such changes to death certificates?

  •  Possibly inflated COVID-19 death counts
  •  Perhaps (unfairly) increased federal aid to areas with inflated COVID-19 deaths
  •  Under-reporting of other causes of death, and resulting lack of attention to  appropriate health concerns
  •  Loss of veracity in the persons responsible for completing the death certificates       
  •  Loss of trust in a system that has been manipulated

None of these is desirable, and all will cost us in the end.