Designing Verbal Autopsy Studies


Gary King, Ying Lu, and Kenji Shibuya. 2010. “Designing Verbal Autopsy Studies.” Population Health Metrics, 19, 8. Copy at
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Designing Verbal Autopsy Studies


Background: Verbal autopsy analyses are widely used for estimating cause-specific mortality rates (CSMR) in the vast majority of the world without high quality medical death registration. Verbal autopsies -- survey interviews with the caretakers of imminent decedents -- stand in for medical examinations or physical autopsies, which are infeasible or culturally prohibited. Methods and Findings: We introduce methods, simulations, and interpretations that can improve the design of automated, data-derived estimates of CSMRs, building on a new approach by King and Lu (2008). Our results generate advice for choosing symptom questions and sample sizes that is easier to satisfy than existing practices. For example, most prior effort has been devoted to searching for symptoms with high sensitivity and specificity, which has rarely if ever succeeded with multiple causes of death. In contrast, our approach makes this search irrelevant because it can produce unbiased estimates even with symptoms that have very low sensitivity and specificity. In addition, the new method is optimized for survey questions caretakers can easily answer rather than questions physicians would ask themselves. We also offer an automated method of weeding out biased symptom questions and advice on how to choose the number of causes of death, symptom questions to ask, and observations to collect, among others. Conclusions: With the advice offered here, researchers should be able to design verbal autopsy surveys and conduct analyses with greatly reduced statistical biases and research costs.
Last updated on 07/25/2013