DEIRDRE COX BAKER
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — After a family member dies in the state of Iowa, survivors may hear some unexpected questions when they go to the funeral home to make arrangements: Did he smoke? Where was she employed? How much education did he have?
Those questions and others are part of the information included on new death certificates now being used throughout Iowa. State officials say the form brings Iowa in line with other vital records jurisdictions in the United States. But it's been a bumpy road since the Jan. 1 introduction of the new form.
Certified death certificates are issued after each death and are handled by funeral home employees, the doctors who actually certify a death and the Scott County Recorder's office, which registers the document and forwards the original to the Iowa Bureau of Vital Statistics in Des Moines.
A death certificate is a permanent legal record, admissible in a court process. As such, it must be as complete, accurate and error-free as humanly possible, officials say.
Iowa has registered death certificates since 1880, and the form is revised about every 10 years, said Jill France, the chief of the Bureau of Health Statistics. The state program links to the National Center for Health Statistics in Atlanta.
The previous death certificate form revision was implemented in 1989. The plan for the changes first arrived in 2003 and is being used across Iowa. The eight-year delay came about because Iowa also started with a change in birth certificates and implemented an electronic system for those forms.
The revised death certificate still is being registered on paper, and it is not known when the switch to an electronic version will come.
"I'm pleased we are taking these steps one at a time," said Vicki Adlfinger, secretary at Weerts Funeral Home in Davenport. The new form is demanding enough, she explained, so it is nice to have time to get the details "down pat."
There are questions on the back of the certified form that ask about the deceased's race, educational background and career. That data will be kept confidential, said Victoria Hutton, a field representative for the Iowa Bureau of Health Statistics, which is a division of the state Department of Public Health.
Data from the death certificate helps officials define mortality patterns among different races and leading causes of death, she said. That, in turn, helps inform which health programs are needed.
For example, a study of the state's death certificates in 2010 showed that most Iowans die from cancer as opposed to heart disease or stroke, health officials announced last year in the "Cancer in Iowa" report.
Physicians and medical examiners are required by Iowa law to certify a death, and other medical professionals may legally pronounce a person dead. The "pronouncers" include registered nurses and physician's assistants. Both the doctor and the pronouncer must now include their professional license number on the death certificate.
What trips up most people who complete the form are the national standards that require abbreviations to be avoided. Abbreviations often introduce errors in the reported data, France explained, such as a typographical error in a two-letter abbreviation for a state. That can significantly change the data being reported or lead a family historian in the wrong direction when conducting research, she added.
The death certificate is a legal record used by the family as well as by a variety of medical and health-related research efforts. It can be introduced in court as evidence in legal cases, thus the data must be clearly stated so there are no questions about it, said Polly Carver-Kimm, the public information officer for the state Department of Public Health.
The new form presents a learning curve for funeral home personnel, who are responsible for gathering much of the information. "We are all very patient with each other," Adlfinger said.
"There is an adjustment period," agreed Nick Haut from Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home in Davenport. Some of the confusion has been on the doctors' part, and that's because physicians may be unfamiliar with the required changes.
Funeral homes used to mail the forms to physician's offices to have them fill in the information they are responsible for. But now the forms are delivered in person, at least in some cases. It is easier to verbally explain to the doctors and their staff members about abbreviations and other new points, Haut said.
"We are trying to do the best we can," he said, noting that the process takes longer for families.
Adlfinger agrees. "After a death, everything has to happen yesterday for a family. They can't move forward without a death certificate, and it can be hard to explain these types of holdups," she said.
Most people understand when they are told about the new form, Haut said. "Really, the hardest part comes between us and the doctors, and it concerns the abbreviations."
Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.comTags: