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Ann Epidemiol. 2001 Jul;11(5):292-6.

Utilizing multiple vital status tracing services optimizes mortality follow-up in large cohort studies.

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Department of Biostatistics, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15261, USA.



To compare the three national-scale death identification services used in our two-stage vital status tracing protocol, Pension Benefit Information Company (PBI), Social Security Administration (SSA), and the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), with respect to death identification and confirmation rate, and relevant demographic variables.


Information on 31,223 subjects with unconfirmed vital status in an ongoing occupational cohort mortality study was simultaneously submitted to PBI, SSA, and HCFA to identify subjects deceased as of December 31, 1992. Subjects whose dates of death were between 1979 and 1992 were then sent to the National Death Index (NDI) to obtain death certificate numbers and supplemental states of death.


PBI identified and confirmed the highest number deaths in this cohort. PBI and SSA identified a higher proportion of deaths for persons who died in earlier years and/or who died at a younger age, for both confirmed and unconfirmed deaths. HCFA identified fewer deaths overall and had a smaller proportion of unconfirmed deaths. These deaths occurred in later years among older subjects and had the highest proportion of females. NDI provided exact matches for 92-96% of deaths identified by each of the three services.


PBI was the most comprehensive service, especially for identifying younger subjects and those with an earlier date of death, while HCFA may help to identify deceased female subjects. SSA data can be purchased and used for periodic updates or interactively to identify deaths among subjects with poor identifiers (such as incorrect or missing social security numbers or misspelled names). Because each service makes a valuable contribution to the identification of deceased cohort subjects, all three should be considered for optimal mortality follow-up.

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