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Electronic death certification makes sense for GPs and relatives

Enabling GPs to issue death certificates electronically would save GP time as well as inconvenience for bereaved relatives, argue Dr John Havard and Dr Akash Karki

Technology has the capacity to introduce substantial efficiencies across the board. In general practice we now issue electronic prescriptions to a pharmacy of the patient’s choice without the need for paper or signature. Every prescription is numbered and tracked so the old prescription pads are becoming obsolete.

Other official documents like sickness certificates (Med3) are also issued electronically on ordinary A4 paper meaning that official certificate pads are essentially redundant.

Death certificates (Medical Certificates of Cause of Death) however elude this progress, just at the time when we are requested to issue them within five days irrespective of weekends. Only one book is allowed per practice and, as doctors are increasingly part-time or working in different locations, this means that the appropriate urgency is thwarted.

It seems sensible to GPs on the frontline that issuing death certificates should be done by the appropriate doctor electronically from any location. Approximately 1% of the average practice list dies every year. This adds up to a lot of inconvenience for bereaved relatives having to collect a certificate from the patient’s surgery. The same applies for hospital deaths, where relatives might have to travel a long way and wait a long time to collect this vital piece of paper.

Scotland has already had such an electronic system in place for two years

It should be possible for GPs to fill out the death certificate and supply relevant extracts from notes remotely, using an online death certification portal. Medical examiners (once appointed – the Government having delayed their introduction til next year) could then authorise death certificate release, after carrying out the appropriate checks.

Scotland has already had such an electronic system in place for two years, so there is a precedent for this.

After all, only death and taxes are certain in life - and your tax return can be filed online!

Dr John Havard and Dr Akash Karki are GPs in Suffolk

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Readers' comments (6)

  • A very good idea. Why not in England and Wales?
    At least thanks from Scotland that pioneers to bring changes and England learns from it.
    Hope this change happens sooner.

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  • Thanks for feedback IMGs. I agree the sooner the better. No reason why principal and application could not extend to whole of UK.

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  • AlanAlmond

    So often good ideas come from Scotland and England plays catch up. Maybe the government benefits from being smaller, with less to do and so more quick footed at putting things right? Alas I suspect the issue is fairly low priority in Westminster.

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  • Think Scotland are better at adoption and implementation of good ideas Alberto rather than idea generation itself. Smaller size and less distraction may help. Agree this is low priority Westminster at present with Brexit.

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  • In the scheme of death administration problems, the existence of a paper certificate seems a pretty small problem.

    What about the requirement for a doctor to view a body after death for cremation? Urgent, pointless and often onerous, depending on how far the patient is from the surgery.

    What about the need for a doctor to have physically seen the patient within 2 weeks of death? I recently had a patient sent for post mortem because none of the several clinicians who had been face to face with him in the 2 weeks before his expected death was a doctor, although the doctor was involved by phone. (One of the clinicians was the surgery's Urgent Care nurse practitioner)

    Reform needed!

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  • Dylan.

    Agree there are other aspects which could be improved around death certification and cremation. There is a proposal for implementing medical examiners next year which was part of a reform that has been delayed for several years! We will see if this helps.

    Although relatively small, added up over time the paper paper certification is a significant workload issue that will not go away. This is something that can be changed as they already do it in Scotland.

    Furthermore if done electronically, death certification can be easily scrutinized by the proposed medical examiner remotely. This may help avoid scenarios that you describe re post mortem in expected death and allow more common sense to prevail.

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