I happened to read an article in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch where Ohio coroners are complaining because some doctors, including emergency physicians, are refusing to sign death certificates listing a patient’s cause of death. The coroners are concerned because they are being “burdened” with hundreds of extra cases every year that they must handle. And if other doctors don’t sign off on the cause of death, sometimes it takes two months for them to examine records, wait for test results, and make a final ruling on a patient’s death.
The treating physicians reportedly use the excuses that they haven’t seen the patients in several months or they weren’t there when the person died. Some emergency physicians expressed concern about liability if the wrong cause of death was listed.
The coroners used the article to try to add a guilt trip on doctors who won’t sign a death certificate by stating that the reluctant doctors aren’t inconveniencing the coroner, they’re inconveniencing a family.
If, according to the article, it takes coroners sometimes two months to determine a cause of death, then how can coroners reasonably expect other physicians to determine the cause of death on the spot? How can an emergency physician determine the cause of a patient’s death just by performing CPR on a patient for 20-30 minutes?
As far as death certificates apply to emergency medicine, if a patient comes in and has a heart attack or has a bullet wound through their chest then the cause of death is rather clear and the death certificates shouldn’t be a problem for the coroners to complete. If the cause of death isn’t so clear, then why would the coroners want to rush the completion of the death certificate? Either way you argue the point, it doesn’t make sense. If the amount of time required to complete a death certificate is marginal, then it isn’t as much of a burden as the coroners are making it out to be. If the amount of time required to complete a death certificate is substantial, then is the time spent performing non-patient care tasks really the best use of an emergency physician’s limited time?
In addition, improperly completed death certificates are a problem. In a recent article in American Medical News, one Pennsylvania coroner was quoted as saying that many physicians “don’t realize that what they put down has some real, long-term ramifications.” The article also notes that “filling out certificates inaccurately can have widespread consequences,” although in the latter case, the speaker was referring to under-reporting of some diseases to federal agencies. Another vignette in the article noted how a murderer almost went free because the cause of a patient’s death was misclassified by a treating physician. I am aware of another well-publicized case in which a personal friend of mine was involved in a medical malpractice action where a coroner determined that a patient’s cause of death was “murder” without knowing all the facts of the case. Later, the coroner was involved in litigation over that determination and ultimately resigned her position due to this and other similar errors.
Requiring that people other than coroners sign death certificates is just another example of medical mission creep and it needs to stop.
It is the coroner’s job to determine the cause of a person’s death. Stop pushing that job off on other people.
WhiteCoat is an emergency physician who blogs at WhiteCoat’s Call Room at Emergency Physicians Monthly.