Time to automate death?

Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, January 14, 2009

By Staff
As North Carolina moves later this year to roll out an automated births-registration system, the time also has come to move forward with automation of the statewide death registration-and-certification process. The existing process results in a cumbersome and inefficient system that causes unnecessary delays in obtaining certified copies of death certificates and produces errors in the data collection which is at the heart of the justification for the process itself.
The benefits derived from an automated death-registration system would include greater efficiency as participants interact electronically in real time to allow for improved timeliness of death registration and access to certificates, higher quality data, reduced errors, greater uniformity, increased security and fraud prevention and an enhanced capability to report out statistical facts of death with increased accuracy and timeliness.
Death registration in North Carolina today is based on a single piece of paper with required original legible signatures in only the statutorily required “permanent black, blue-black, or blue ink.” The process begins with a local funeral director or person acting as such, and requires actual physical signatures, including one from a physician as to cause of death. The original paper then must pass through more hands at a local health department and at the register of deeds office in the county of death before it finally ends up arriving by mail in Raleigh into the hands of vital-record professionals who manually handle each certificate — more than once or twice.
That process is so outdated as to require local and state employees involved in the process to manually inspect and hand-code and then process each certificate so that the relevant statistical data can be extrapolated from the paper certificate. The folks employed doing vital-records business in Raleigh will tell you that they are unable to provide a certified copy of a death certificate until at least 90 days after the date of death. These original paper documents ultimately end up in a vault in Raleigh that must be securely maintained so as to preserve the papers and allow for retrieval of individual certificates from the vault as questions arise about them or as the need for inspection of the original documents presents itself.
According to the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, about half the states have or are in the process of automating their death-registration processes. North Carolina had done little so far toward automating the death-certification process, preferring to wait until the new Web-based birth registration system is deployed statewide.
A properly working new system benefits physicians, medical examiners and institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. Funeral directors, local and state registrars, federal, state and local agencies, public health researchers and families of deceased people would all be better served from an automated death-registration system that would not require original papers being passed through numerous hands or manual inspection and data entry.
The development or purchase of available software with necessary customization followed by statewide implementation of an automated Web-based death-registration system would be a significant chore, but one well worth beginning to address as soon as possible.