How to Understand the Cause of Death Listed on a Death Certificate Part 1

How to understand Cause of Death Listed on Death Cert

“Death really is just a number, the International Classification of Diseases number.”

Sometimes when we find a Death Certificate we just find more questions.  Maybe the handwriting is not legible or the informant was a hospital worker. Yeah, like you’re gonna get any hard facts from the hospital worker that so thoughtfully asked about who your ancestor’s parents were.  If you are lucky, sometimes (depending on the year) you can get a hold of a death certificate that has the cause of death and a numerical code written all catawampus in the cause of death field.  The code or number is referred to as the International Classification of Diseases.  We are currently on the 10th revision so you may see people refer to it now as the ICD 10 code.

Looking this number up can give you more insight into the cause of death of your relative when you are performing genealogy research.  I’ve included an example below for more detail.  So what is the International Classification of Diseases and how did it come into existence?

The ICD codes were designed to create international uniformity for healthcare workers when they have to collect, process, classify, and present mortality statistics.  But we must go a little deeper down the rabbit hole and ask, “Why are death certificates so important?” “Or more so why must we keep track of disease classifications and death registrations?” Simply put, we must keep track of reoccurring epidemics.  Recall any of the historical cholera, plague, yellow fever, malaria, and small pox epidemics? Yeah, lets try and prevent those from happening again J

Death registration in the United States was mirrored after the English Registration Act of 1837.  Massachusetts was the first state to enact the registration law in 1842.  More states started to follow suit and by 1855 the American Medical Association pushed for more states to create offices specifically for the registration of vital events.  By the time 1900 had rolled around there were about 10 states that had complied with the U.S. Death Registration Area so they were able to start compiling the yearly mortality statistic reports.  By 1933 all states were on board with registration.

The ICD has been revised ten times, below is a list of revisions in relation to the years they apply to.  So if you have a death certificate from 1958 you’ll want to look into the ICD7.

Revision   Years
1st 1900-09
2d 1910-20
3d 1921-29
4th 1930-38
5th 1939-48
6th 1949-57
7th 1958-67
8th 1968-78
9th 1979-98
10th 1999-present

But what about before the 1900s in the United States, how can one understand that messy handwriting or the very archaic disease classification? Stay tuned for part 2 of this post.  Below is the example I promised.

I’ll use one from my family tree as an example.  My relative died 2 April 1955 on Highway 91 North Salt Lake, Utah in a motor vehicle collision.  The death was ruled an accident and the death certificate was filled out in depth so I really had no reason to look up the ICD code (see that letter and four digit number written in pencil below) yep E8161 is the ICD code used in this case.

Death Cert example

An easy way to look this code up is to go to HIPPASpace for ICD9 and ICD10 searches. The link will take you to the ICD9 version which occurred way after my relative’s death but it is still a useful quick link.

Type the code: E8161 in the “any search query” box and click Search.

The results that were returned back to me were:

ICD 9 example

So see here that the ICD9 code states that this accident occurred without a collision which I KNOW a collision with a truck did occur, so if I wanted more information I would look up the ICD6 for the correct year.

The website is another great resource for looking up the outdated codes.  Just follow the link and select ICD6, 4 digit code (because this is what correlates with my ancestor’s death certificate).  Search by using short cut keys “Crt and F” for control find.  Type in the code that is on the death certificate “E816” and search.

You should see this list:

ICD6 list

Please keep an eye out for part 2 of this series and as always leave me a comment below.

One thought on “How to Understand the Cause of Death Listed on a Death Certificate Part 1

  1. polishTS

    Great awareness, appreciate your sharing this
    I really have received a lot of awareness from this document, maintain the good work, thank you.

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