Here's what to do when you spot an error on a death certificate

Dec 12, 2017

Doctors can sometimes find themselves in a difficult predicament when they discover an error on a medical death certificate.

This is a question we are asked fairly frequently. The sorts of scenarios in which this arises can include: where the legal name reported by the family is different to the name the patient is known by in the practice and on their Medicare card; where a typographical error has occurred because of illegible handwriting; or where the family or the treating team discovers an error with the time or cause of death.

When doctors call about this issue, they are often facing the stress of dealing with a grieving family or an impatient funeral director, as well as the administrative challenge of having to correct the record. 

The good news is that the record can be corrected, but the process varies depending on the nature of the error, and the stage the death certification process is at. It is important to clarify these before taking any action.

Does the error mean the death has to be reported to the coroner?

A cause of death certificate cannot be issued if the death is reportable to the coroner. Assuming that the death was not reportable to the coroner in the first instance, it is unlikely this would change if it simply relates to an administrative error that doesn’t relate to manner and cause of death.

However, if the cause of death has changed and the cause of death does now warrant a referral to the coroner, then the incorrect death certificate must be brought to the coroner’s attention.

For details on reportable death requirements in each state and territory, download our factsheets on death certificates.

What should GPs do with the incorrect death certificate?

The medical certificate of cause of death should be treated as a medical record, so even if the error is identified before providing it to anybody, it should not be destroyed, or altered to render the information illegible.

An appropriate method of correction is to strike through the incorrect entry and mark it “written in error”, followed by the author’s printed name, signature, designation, date and time.

If the medical certificate of cause of death has been provided to the funeral director and/or family before the error is discovered, the funeral director and family should be notified that the previously issued certificate contained an error. They should be asked to return it to the medical practitioner who created it.

That version should be kept on file and crossed out and marked as “written in error”. A new correct version should be provided to the funeral director and/or the family and a copy of the corrected version also kept on file with the one made in error.

What about the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages?

If the cause of death certificate has already been provided to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages before the error is discovered, the registry would need to be informed. The process for notifying the registry of an error varies for each jurisdiction.

In some jurisdictions, the process for notifying the registry of an error will depend on whether the person making the notification is the original certifying medical practitioner or not, so it is important to check with specific state or territory registries.

Who can correct the original certificate?

As noted above, if the death has been reported to the registry, most jurisdictions require the original certifying medical practitioner, or the coroner, to apply to amend the cause of death.

Generally, it is not appropriate for doctors to amend the cause of death on a certificate completed by another practitioner. If asked to do so, and the original certifying doctor is not available, you should exercise caution and contact your medical defence organisation in the first instance and the registry directly. The details for the state and territory registries are set out below.

Where to go:

ACT Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

For information on the application process to correct an entry see https://www.accesscanberra.act.gov.au/app/answers/detail/a_id/2094#!tabs-3

NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

The Application to Correct an Entry (Form 18) is available from - http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/Documents/apply-for-correct-an-entry.pdf

Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria

For details on the process to correct the form see https://www.bdm.vic.gov.au/service-partners/medical-practitioners/submitting-and-correcting-the-form

Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

For details on the process to correct a submitted record or certificate see https://www.qld.gov.au/law/births-deaths-marriages-and-divorces/deaths-wills-and-probate/registering-a-death

Northern Territory Births, Deaths and Marriages Office

There is no online form available, you can contact one of the Births, Death and Marriages offices, listed at https://nt.gov.au/law/bdm/births-deaths-and-marriages-office-contacts

South Australia Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Office

For details on the process to correct a submitted record or certificate see https://www.sa.gov.au/topics/family-and-community/births,-deaths-and-marriages/corrections-to-certificates

Tasmania Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

For information on the process for amending a certificate see http://www.justice.tas.gov.au/bdm/amending_a_certificate/correcting_errors

Western Australia Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

The form for an application to correct a certificate is available from http://www.bdm.dotag.wa.gov.au/_files/BDM7_Correction_Request_Form.pdf

This article was originally published in Medical Observer.

More information

Read our article:

Body of evidence: lessons in writing death certificates

If you would like further information on this issue or any other issues, visit our website or for immediate advice, call our Medico-legal Advisory Service (MLAS) on 1800 128 268, 24-7 in emergencies.

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