Doctors have a professional responsibility to ensure that upon a patient’s death, the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (the “death certificate”) is completed accurately.

Who can complete a death certificate?

The doctor responsible for the deceased person’s medical care immediately before death, or who examined the body of the deceased person after death, must complete the death certificate.1

When should a death certificate be completed?

The doctor must be ‘comfortably satisfied’ as to the cause of death and that no circumstances are present which require the death to be reported to the Coroner. Where the death is not a reportable or reviewable death, a death certificate must be completed.2

When not to complete a death certificate?

Where the death is a reportable or reviewable death, a death certificate must not be completed.3 The doctor must report the death without delay to the Coroner (Coronial Admissions and Enquiries).4

In Victoria, a death is a reportable death (and therefore must be reported to the Coroner) in the following general circumstances:

• where the death was unexpected, unnatural, or violent;

• where the death resulted directly or indirectly from an accident or injury;

• where the death occurred during or following a medical procedure where the death is or may be causally related to the procedure and a medical practitioner would not, immediately before the procedure was undertaken, have reasonably expected the death;

• where the death occurred when the person was held in custody or care (e.g. police care or custody, mental health facility or residential service);

• where a death certificate has not been signed and is not likely to be signed (e.g. where an opinion about the cause of death cannot be formed); or

• where the person’s identity is unknown.

Formalities for death certificates

Where a death certificate is required to be completed, it must be completed and sent to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registrar within 48 hours of the death.5

The doctor must also provide a copy of the death certificate to the funeral director or other person responsible for arranging the disposal of the deceased’s body.6

The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages allows doctors to create, print and submit death certificates electronically to the Registry and relevant funeral director.7

Comment

Accurate identification of the cause of death is important for legal purposes, statistical and public health purposes, and for family members.

The summary above sets out the position in Victoria. The requirements vary in other states and territories.8