Death Reporting: How It Works, Why It Matters During COVID-19, Opioid Crises

September 15, 2020


John Lyon
Strategic Communications Manager

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Death reporting is an important component of public health. Data from death certificates can help identify health disparities, prioritize government funding, and inform the response to public health crises.

Our new explainer reviews the process for documenting death, including the role of cause-of-death certifiers, the importance of the death certificate, the role of state and federal agencies in collecting and maintaining death data, and the importance of death reporting in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.

Key takeaways:

  • When a person dies, the cause of death is determined by a cause-of-death certifier, which may be a physician, a medical examiner, or a coroner.
  • In Arkansas, death investigation occurs at the county level, with a county coroner overseeing the process. Arkansas coroners are elected by county residents and are not required to have any medical knowledge or official certification to run for the position.
  • Coroners in Arkansas do not perform autopsies; they may refer cases to the state medical examiner for autopsies. The state does have training and licensure requirements for medical examiners.
  • Death certificates must comply with federal standards which require listing the immediate cause of death; any intermediate causes of death, defined as conditions that link the immediate cause of death to underlying causes; and any underlying causes of death.
  • Death reporting is important in understanding and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic because it allows public health officials to track COVID-19-related fatalities and identify underlying health conditions that make some people more at risk than others.
  • Misunderstandings of the death reporting process have led some to believe, mistakenly, that only a small percentage of deaths reported as COVID-19 deaths actually resulted from COVID-19. In fact, COVID-19 is, at a minimum, a contributing factor in all of the deaths.
  • Death reporting is also important in understanding and responding to the opioid crisis. Some studies suggest that opioid overdose deaths have been underreported as a result of coroners and medical examiners failing to list drug use as a contributing factor on death certificates.
  • Death certificates also serve as important legal documents required to manage the affairs of people who have died.
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