Scientists have developed a revolutionary new app to collect and record causes of death in real time using tablets and mobile phones, and have tested it in several countries including India. Worldwide, two in three deaths - 35 million each year - are unregistered.
Around 180 countries that are home to 80 per cent of the world's population do not collect reliable cause of death statistics, researchers said. A team led by researchers at the University of Melbourne and the University of Washington redesigned a short 'verbal autopsy' questionnaire and tested it in India, the Philippines, Mexico, and Tanzania.
The app was then field-tested in China, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. Family members of the deceased were given surveys in hand-held devices. A computer then analysed the data to make a diagnosis, bypassing the need to rely on doctors to do this work.
"Without accurate cause of death information, we can't monitor disease and injury trends, we can't keep track of emerging health problems and we don't have any markers to show us whether programmes and policies are actually working," said Professor Alan Lopez from the University of Melbourne.
"So if you live in a country where no-one is dying from malaria, then why are you pouring money into malaria-prevention programmes? And conversely, if people are dying from lung cancer, why aren't you investing in tobacco control?" said Lopez.
"Up-to-date, reliable information on what people are dying from and at what age, is really important for policies to prevent premature death. Our app provides a way to do this, quickly, simply, cheaply and effectively, in real time, with the power of technology," he said.
"Verbal autopsy research has shown that computer models are just as accurate as physicians in making diagnoses based on verbal autopsy data, at a fraction of the cost," said Christopher Murray, Director Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
"In countries with scarce data on causes of death, policymakers need this information to better understand local disease burden and effectively allocate resources," said Murray. The problem in many regions around the world is that only registered doctors are qualified to determine a cause of death, but the process is expensive, time-consuming and can be unreliable, researchers said.
Computers can reliably provide a diagnosis by linking symptoms with a specific cause of death in real-time. The instant provision of information overcomes what can be a 10-year lag between the death and the doctor's report. "Relying on doctors to collect information about causes of death in rural populations is not helpful," Lopez said. The research was published in the journal BMC Medicine.