Background: Verbal autopsy (VA) is an established tool for assessing cause-specific mortality patterns in communities where deaths are not routinely medically certified, and is an important source of data on deaths among the poorer half of the world's population. However, the repeatability of the VA process has never been investigated, even though it is an important factor in its overall validity. This study analyses repeatability in terms of the overall VA process (from interview to cause-specific mortality fractions (CSMF)), as well as specifically for interview material and individual causes of death, using data from Burkina Faso and Indonesia.
Methods: Two series of repeated VA interviews relating to women of reproductive age in Burkina Faso (n=91) and Indonesia (n=116) were analysed for repeatability in terms of interview material, individual causes of death and CSMFs. All the VA data were interpreted using the InterVA-M model, which provides 100% intrinsic repeatability for interpretation, and thus eliminated the need to consider variations or repeatability in physician coding.
Results: The repeatability of the overall VA process from interview to CSMFs was good in both countries. Repeatability was moderate in the interview material, and lower in terms of individual causes of death. Burkinabe data were less repeatable than Indonesian, and repeatability also declined with longer recall periods between the death and interview, particularly after two years.
Conclusions: While these analyses do not address the validity of the VA process in absolute terms, repeatability is a prerequisite for intrinsic validity. This study thus adds new understanding to the quest for reliable cause of death assessment in communities lacking routine medical certification of deaths, and confirms the status of VA as an important and reliable tool at the community level, but perhaps less so at the individual level.
Population Health Metrics (2009), 7:6 [doi: 10.1186/1478-7954-7-6]