A QUARTER of deaths in Sheffield are inaccurately recorded, a leading doctor has revealed after poring over thousands of death certificates.
Some 2,000 of 8,000 death certificates issued in the city contained inaccuracies, meaning families could be told the wrong cause of a loved one’s death.
Dr Alan Fletcher, a consultant in A&E at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, checked the certificates against medical notes and case histories, discovering inaccuracies in one in four records.
Often doctors had listed the immediate trigger for a patient’s death, rather than the root cause.
Dr Fletcher was appointed Britain’s first Medical Examiner to check the accuracy of death certificates as part of a move to tighten up procedures in the wake of the Harold Shipman murders.
He was tasked with investigating death certification in a pilot scheme in Sheffield.
A similar system will be set up across the country in April 2014.
It is aimed to give grieving families more information and reassurance on what killed their relatives, with a 1,000-strong body of medical examiners to double-check death certificates.
Despite the high number of errors, Dr Fletcher said doctors were not routinely making disastrous mistakes or deliberate falsifications.
He said: “I don’t believe there is someone of murderous intent patrolling hospital corridors.
“It is rare to get something off the wall. It is a question of precision.”
“It is uncommon to come across something that is jaw-dropping.
“Catastrophic mistakes are usually recognised and reported, but subtle things that are not immediately apparent may have a bearing for clinical governance.”
Faults stemmed from doctors not ‘reading’ the full stories behind patients’ fatal illnesses, he said.
He said doctors didn’t always understand when they must refer matters to a coroner.
“There was a failure to appreciate a cause of death that might be unnatural,” he said.
“Take pulmonary fibrosis - a disease that might be acquired industrially.
“This is an area of mining and steelworks.
“The registrar would be required to refer this to a coroner.”
Anne Milton, the public health minister, said: “Our plans to reform the system of death certification will improve the accuracy and robustness of information we record.”
Dr Fletcher added: “The pilot scheme has been exceptionally successful and will result in a more comprehensive death certification process being adopted nationally.
“I am confident if somebody were to die in Sheffield, the cause of death registered will be as accurate and detailed as possible.
“We are also working in closer partnership with coroners to ensure deaths requiring further investigation are always referred.”