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PLoS Med. 2010 Apr 13;7(4):e1000262. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000262.

What can we conclude from death registration? Improved methods for evaluating completeness.

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Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States of America.



One of the fundamental building blocks for determining the burden of disease in populations is to reliably measure the level and pattern of mortality by age and sex. Where well-functioning registration systems exist, this task is relatively straightforward. Results from many civil registration systems, however, remain uncertain because of a lack of confidence in the completeness of death registration. Incomplete registration systems mean not all deaths are counted, and resulting estimates of death rates for the population are then underestimated. Death distribution methods (DDMs) are a suite of demographic methods that attempt to estimate the fraction of deaths that are registered and counted by the civil registration system. Although widely applied and used, the methods have at least three types of limitations. First, a wide range of variants of these methods has been applied in practice with little scientific literature to guide their selection. Second, the methods have not been extensively validated in real population conditions where violations of the assumptions of the methods most certainly occur. Third, DDMs do not generate uncertainty intervals.


In this paper, we systematically evaluate the performance of 234 variants of DDM methods in three different validation environments where we know or have strong beliefs about the true level of completeness of death registration. Using these datasets, we identify three variants of the DDMs that generally perform the best. We also find that even these improved methods yield uncertainty intervals of roughly +/- one-quarter of the estimate. Finally, we demonstrate the application of the optimal variants in eight countries.


There continues to be a role for partial vital registration data in measuring adult mortality levels and trends, but such results should only be interpreted alongside all other data sources on adult mortality and the uncertainty of the resulting levels, trends, and age-patterns of adult death considered. Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.

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