Ed Humpherson, the Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority, has thanked the RSS – in particular, former RSS council member Professor Sheila Bird from the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University – for continuing to highlight the problem of late death registrations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The RSS has long campaigned to change current legislation, which allows for the registration of deaths that are subject to an inquest, to be delayed until the cause of death has been established. We are concerned that delays for inquest verdicts on suicides and drug-related deaths, in particular, mean that calendar-year trends are seriously confounded.
Professor Bird wrote to Ed Humpherson asking him to consider removing National Statistics designation from death-registration in England, Wales and Northern Ireland due to the delays in registering fact-of-death that occur when a death is referred for a coroner’s investigation.
His response (PDF) acknowledges that late registration prevalence is increasing and that the matter would continue to be under review. Ed also notes that ‘Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to improve the information about late registrations provided to users, largely due to your and the RSS’s efforts to highlight the importance of this issue.’
He has now added the weight of his office to these arguments so that the Clinical Practice Research Database (CPRD), which already had excellent background information on the late registration of deaths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has now added the following text to its website:
‘Please note that late registration for some deaths means that the proportion of deaths captured is lower for the last year of the coverage period, and this proportion is likely to differ by age at death and cause of death. This is especially pronounced for the last 1-2 weeks of available death data which shows an under count of the total number of deaths as these data do not capture those where the registration of a death has been delayed (e.g. deaths referred to coroners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which cannot be registered until investigations have been concluded, and can result in delays of months or years).
For more information please refer to the ONS User guide to mortality statistics, the ONS analysis exploring the impact of registration delays on mortality statistics and the associated dataset used for this report.’
In addition, Ed has recommended that NHS Digital make the same changes to their website.
Professor Bird said: ‘I greatly welcome the numerous steps taken in the past decade by ONS, UKSA, CPRD and NHS Digital to ensure greater awareness by research-teams about the extent to which late registration of deaths handicaps our knowledge about survival status in record-linkage studies; and awareness by journalists that time-trends, such as in suicides, are distorted when reported by registration-year rather than by death-year. Just recently, the BBC – despite awareness and genuine efforts to get it right – reported on suicides registered in 2017 as though all had occurred in 2017, whereas about half will have died prior to 2017. Reporting suicides by registration-year is an elephant trap even for the best journalists.’
The RSS will continue its campaign to end once and for all the anomalous late registration of fact-of-death in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.