Mental health

June 2011


How to complete a death certificate

A guide for GPs

Volume 40, No.6, June 2011 Pages 446-449

Sara Bird

This article forms part of our ‘Paperwork’ series for 2011, providing information about a range of paperwork that general practitioners complete regularly. The aim of the series is to provide information on the purpose of the paperwork, and hints on how to complete it accurately. This will allow the GP to be more efficient and the patient to have an accurately completed piece of paperwork for the purpose required. This article discusses some questions that frequently arise in general practice with regard to the completion of death certificates.

Case study

The general practitioner received a telephone call from the police asking if she could write a death certificate for a patient who had attended the practice. The man, 83 years of age, had been found dead in bed by his wife that morning. One of the GP’s colleagues had looked after the patient for about 10 years, but the colleague was currently overseas and not contactable.

On review of the medical records, the GP noted that the patient had a history of ischaemic heart disease, having suffered a myocardial infarct 8 years earlier. The patient had undergone coronary artery stenting 3 years ago. According to the medical records, the GP’s colleague had last seen the patient about 2 months before his death. At this time, the patient was well and he had attended for repeat prescriptions of his cardiac medications.

According to the police officer, the patient’s wife reported that her husband had been well since his visit to the GP and he had not seen any other doctors or attended hospital since this time. On the night before his death, the patient said he felt unwell and had some chest pain for which he had taken Anginine.

The GP was not sure if she could write a death certificate for the patient in this situation and contacted her medical defence organisation for advice. The medicolegal adviser informed the GP that if she was ‘comfortably satisfied’ as to the cause of the patient’s death, then on the basis that she was responsible for the management of her colleague’s patients in his absence, she was authorised to provide a death certificate. If the GP wanted to discuss the situation further, she could also obtain telephone advice from the Coroner’s office about whether she should write the death certificate.

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